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Proposed Council Elections Change Delayed

Single-member district amendment misses November ballot.

Efforts to change how Maui County council members are elected – replacing at-large elections with single-member districts and redrawing district lines — stalled this month as council members opted to delay a decision until next year.

Proponents had hoped the issue, which would amend the county charter, would be put to voters on the November ballot. Instead, council members voted at their July 15 meeting to refer the matter to a yet-to-be-formed charter commission, which will likely take up the matter in March and decide if it will make it onto a future ballot.

Currently, council members are elected by voters countywide to represent one of nine districts, meaning members can lose their districts but be elected by winning the countywide vote.

The amendment would create nine single-member districts and council members would be elected solely by their constituents. Districts would be redrawn according to population, meaning the council member positions that represent Molokai and Lanai exclusively would be eliminated. Instead, the two islands would be attached to districts on Maui.

This spring, a poll of 503 Maui county residents commissioned by the West Maui Charter Working Group, a citizens association that proposed the amendment, found 65 percent of residents favor the change to single-member districts.

However, Molokai council member Danny Mateo said in an interview that the amendment would be detrimental to residents on Molokai, who would lose their voice on the council.

“One size does not fit all,” he said.

Mateo, who is running unopposed for his fifth and last term this year, said it makes sense for council members to be voted for at-large because the issues the council decides on affect residents countywide.

He argued that despite their smaller populations, Molokai and Lanai deserve their own representation on the council given their isolation from Maui.

“Our island and Lanai have the most to lose,” he said. “It’s so unfortunate that the focus is [on] Maui Island.”
 
Proponents of the amendment dispute the idea that it would strip Molokai and Lanai of representation. The current election system has more Maui residents vote for Molokai’s council member than Molokai residents, said Dave DeLeon, government affairs director for the Maui Realtor’s Association, which has been a vocal supporter of this issue.

Under the new system, DeLeon added, candidates wouldn’t have to campaign countywide, a costly effort that leads to more council members running unopposed.

The issue of single-member districts has been floated for nearly 30 years.

“It’s been around forever, but it never really gelled with the community,” DeLeon said.

The issue has gained momentum recently in part due to questions surrounding Lanai council member Sol Kaho`ohalahala’s residency. In October, following a challenge from 19 Lanai residents over his resident status, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that Kaho`ohalahala is actually a resident of Lahaina.

This controversy, DeLeon said, prompted more people to reexamine county council members and how they are elected and helped the single-member district amendment to gain traction.

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