Monday, July 18, 2011


NOTHING TO SEE HERE: One thing that rampant county cronyism creates is a bunch of well-connected board and commission members whose qualifications are often as dubious as their conscientiousness.

When Charter Commission Chair Sherman Shiraishi showed up at last Wednesday's Council Committee of the Whole meeting to request the council's input on a "proposal to establish a permanent Charter Review Commission," it was the council that seemed befuddled as to why the commission is sitting for 10 years in the first place.

Seems that when the 2007-8 commission was empaneled for the then-usual "once every 10 years" assemblage there were so many proposals for changes to the charter that they had to limit the number that made it to the ballot to 15 from as many as 50 at one point, just so as not to overwhelm voters.

And that was without even touching the whole "county manager" mess or the apparent need for a slew of housekeeping changes.

As the session began a letter from Mayor Bernard Carvalho to the commission and council was produced raising the question as to why, if the commission was good to go until 2018, it was necessary to make it permanent now.

Well that was enough for Shiraishi to take his cue and all of a sudden, after months of charter commission meetings and weeks of council deferrals until Shiraishi could come to address the council, he instantly decided he agreed with the mayor after all.

Nope- no cronyism here... just good old independent thought.

But since Shiraishi and Board and Commissions Director John Isobe were there anyway the councilmembers decided to air some gripes about the charter and past amendments- whether they had any idea what they were talking about or not.

First up was Councilperson JoAnn Yukimura who has a special black place in her heart for the ease with which citizen's can petition for a charter amendment- a 5% of registered voters threshold. That came about after she initiated and led the court fight- where the county sued the county- against the "Proposition 13" style property tax amendment that passed overwhelmingly in the early 2000's, only to be overturned by the Hawai`i Supreme Court in a confused ruling that no one really understood.

She and others maintain that a county's charter is "like the federal or state constitutions" in that it should be hard to change since it is a guiding document. But the difference is that while the federal and state constitutions grant rights to citizens and delineate powers, local charters merely take the powers left over and delineate the structure of the legislative and executive branches and list the various departments, board and commissions and the like, describing their functions- nuts and bolts measures that occasionally need revision due to changes in the needs of the community.

But that's a philosophical matter that can be argued either way. What wasn't was Yukimura's bemoaning of the fact that the people of Kaua`i "still need education" after they rejected changes to the infamous anti-cronyism section 20.02(D) of the charter which prohibits members of boards and commissions from "(a)ppear(ing) in behalf of private interests before any county board, commission or agency."

It's a simple measure that stops perceptions of conflicts of interest before they start so that the "one hand washes the other" style of governance can be nipped in the bud.

It seems the charter commission has recently lost three of its members because they routinely represented clients before the council and planning commission and even though there are only a handful of such good old boys and girls on the island they have populated boards and commissions in droves. The county tried to ignore the provision for years even appointing conflicted individuals to the Ethics Board to rule for allowing the practice.

But when they finally tried to change the charter the voters rejected it and the Ethics Board was left with no other choice to finally issue an opinion enforcing the charter.

Of course there were nods of agreement around the council table as well as from Shiraishi and Isobe that indeed it is the voters who "don't get it."

Despite the need for things like reform of the county attorney section (we're the only island without a "corporation counsel") and a the transformation of the Department of Personnel Services into a modern Department Human Resources (another example of changing times leading to the need for changes to the charter) as well as a slew of needed housekeeping changes (like removing all the references to "he") councilmembers insist on the commission asking voters the same questions over and over (like four year council terms) even when they've been answered again and again... resoundingly.

Once again the trophy for the most dunderheaded performance of the day had to go to- who else- Chair Jay Furfaro.

Recently the council discovered that the Cost Control Commission (CCC) was taking the powers the charter gave them seriously, such as requiring the administration to submit bills to the council to carry out their recommendations within 30 days of their request. But despite the charter requirement, the administration had simply ignored three such requests in 2009.

That apparently got Furfaro looking through CCC documents where he noticed that they were discussing possible changes to the real property tax laws- something that Furfaro rarely fails to tell the public, whether it's on the agenda or not, that he is working on reforming.

Like a lion building up from a growl to a roar, Furfaro essentially asked what the heck the CCC was doing butting into the council's kuleana finally reading Section 3.10 from the charter:

Annual Budget and Capital Program. The council shall enact an annual budget ordinance, which shall include both the operational and capital expenditures for the fiscal year and the method of financing same. The council shall provide sufficient revenues to assure a balanced budget (emphasis his).

The council is in charge of property taxes, he bellowed, not the cost control commission.

Apparently Furfaro failed to read the charter's Section 28, regarding the CCC. Isobe, left with no choice but to defend the CCC- and so himself as the person in charge- then read 28.04 aloud:

The commission shall review personnel costs, real property taxes (emphasis added), travel budgets, contract procedures; review with the aim of eliminating programs and services available or more efficiently supplied by other governments or organizations; eliminate or consolidate overlapping or duplicate programs and services; scrutinize for reduction any county operation.

Furfaro hemmed and hawed and with a Ralph Kramden "hahmana-hamamana" quickly changed the subject but we were laughing too hard to hear what he said next.

What wasn't surprising at all was how quickly Shiraishi changed from the need for a perpetual charter commission to saying that there was barely any work to do as soon as the mayor told him what to think- and how fast the council agreed.

Because after all what's the good of being able to nominate and confirm a select set of yes men and women to board and commissions if they start to tell you no?

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