Thursday, May 26, 2011


SLIPPIN' INTO DARKNESS: "It was the same- only different" is one of our favorite "huh?" inspiring expressions.

And it was hard not to feel that way about this year's county budget process, the difference being that they were open for all to see with not just on-line but TV coverage.

That allowed the public to see what the few of us who have actually sat through them in the past know all too well- any pretense of actual due diligence is a joke with the proceedings alternating between snoozefest and schmoozefest.

As we wrote in mid-April

after the department heads' usual perfunctory reading of their "prepared remarks" councilmembers lobbed a few softballs before heaping the praise on them reminiscent of the post-secret-handshake "you're great, no you're great" declaration from the Tom Hanks Saturday Night Live "Fiver Timer" sketch.

Most of the questions that have been asked are invariably of the "what the bleep did you do with the money" nature with "anykine" answers sufficing as appointees stumbled and bumbled their way through the sessions until they finally ran out the clock. That was followed by councilmembers declarations of "I especially liked the way you listed..." whatever it was they listed and an "I love you too" from the person in the not-so-hot seat.

What we failed to mention is that when any difficult question- read: potentially embarrassing or threatening to the administration's corrupt crony cabal- arises, the department head is given time to get the answer and come back during the "call backs," scheduled later in April.

Problem is that when they do come back they inevitably dodge the questions again through equivocation and obfuscation and truly run out the clock because the next phase of the process is the public hearing, supplemental budget from the mayor and final decision making.

But one thing that was different this year was that some councilmembers actually started to complain about the "compressed time line" that supposedly forced them into "rush job" budgets.

Of course our response was "and you just figured this out?" followed by "we'll bet dollars to donuts it's the same next year."

Another thing different- at least as far as the local newspaper coverage- was that our favorite reporter was apparently absent and his substitute, business reporter Vanessa Van Voorhis, became the first one in years to actually report the unique way the final budget is determined on Kaua`i.

The first thing she wrote was the usual wrong information saying:

The budget will now go to Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. for final approval.

But then she actually gives a clue as to the real "final" phase of the Kaua`i County Budget process:

The mayor has the power to line-item veto the budget, meaning he does not have to approve the budget as a whole. A council super majority of five of seven votes could override a mayoral veto.

Every year, not just the local newspaper but the Honolulu press dutifully report how "the budget now goes to the mayor for his signature." And no amount of hair-on-fire notes from us to reporters to "read the charter" seem to force them to avoid the same mistake the next year and every year thereafter.

So how did this come about. That too is an "only on Kaua`i" story.

Back during the administration of then-Mayor, now Council Vice Chair JoAnn Yukimura, the battles between the council and mayor were epic on just about every issue. So, under the budget process of "council approval, mayoral veto and council override" that just about every jurisdiction across the county uses, that's exactly what happened... except for the override.

The budget had passed by a 5-4 margin so with Yukimura's veto there were only four votes to override- on short of the five votes needed. And it stayed that way all though May and June until finally the new fiscal year came around with no budget in place.

Of course being politicians no one wanted to admit that this was obviously a politically-created mess and instead called it a "constitutional crisis."

And the newspaper and the sleeping populace quite obviously bought it in the form of the ultimately confusing and contradictory charter amendment that left us with a guiding document that, in it's Solomon-like wisdom splits the baby and gives no one the final say over the budget which just sort of slips into existence.

The year after it passed the council had no idea what to do and the only one who supposedly understood the process- or claimed to- was long time council "legislative analyst" Ricky Watenabe without whom, all councilmembers agree, the council could not operate.

What happens when Watenabe retires is anyone's guess but when he does these arcane and questionable council procedures are bound to blow up in the council's faces.

And when they do you can bet things will pretty much the same... only really, really different.

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