Wednesday, November 18, 2009


PAWED AND FLAWED AGAIN: While sitting around kibitzing and kvetching in the council chambers with our pal Tony Sommer, former Honolulu Star- Bulletin Kauai Bureau Chief and author of “KPD Blue” he used to routinely pronounce judgment on the foibles and folly with one of his favorite sayings- “when you work for the king you carry the king’s sword”.

And that’s apparently the case with Deputy County Attorney Mauna Kea Trask’s newly released opinion on the proposed county manager system, obtained by the local paper’s ace reporter Mike Levine and posted on line to accompany his article on the document.

We’ll have a more detailed analysis as soon as we get a hold of an “OCA” text copy so quoting it isn’t a chore, but on first blush it appears that Trask simply self-selected his own bowling pins, set them up and knocked them down in a string of straw-man arguments replete with out-of-context suppositions and red herrings in order to declare the concept of a county manager system generally illegal in Hawai`i and maybe the country.

After glossing over the fact that the opinion is proposal specific- based on the unbelievably flawed document authored by Walter Lewis in an attempt to exact revenge for the county’s supreme court victory in declaring his “’Ohana” property tax charter amendment null and void (as we detailed last month)- he then attempts to use a broad brush and questionable interpretations of a passage in state law to argue that any CM system would be illegal, not just in Hawai`i but in the country in general.

Two examples stand out for their disingenuousness.

Unbelievably, after quoting case law requiring those interpreting state law to take the plain meaning at face value and not try to read something into it, Levine accurately reports

Section 46-1.5 of the Hawai`i Revised Statutes states that each county’s charter “shall establish the county executive, administrative and legislative structure and organization,” a phrase that “is interpreted by the County Attorney’s office to require each county within the state to have specific separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, which the proposed council-county manager system form would not have.”

If that isn’t reading into the words “county executive, administrative and legislative structure and organization,” that there must be a certain structure including a mayor and council it’s hard to imagine what would be.

The other we’ll discuss today- because it’s refereed to not just in the article but in a post by attorney-blogger Charley Foster who also apparently misses the point in Trask’s completely out of context use of one contention that accompanies the specific proposal.

As Foster writes:

Beyond the legal analysis, the county attorney goes on to strenuously argue against the county manager proposal on policy grounds, proposing answers to a number of criticisms of the current mayoral system. I especially like the attorney's response to what really is the most clueless of the criticisms:

The current exectutive branch of government interferes with the council's ability to enact public policy laws and investigate subjects for which it is responsible.

To which the attorney correctly replies –

This criticism misses the whole point of the American form of representative democracy that utilizes a system of checks and balances.

The problem is that if one actually read the passage in the proposal it specifically and uniquely refers not to general policy but to the main problem that has spurred some to support the CM system- the fact that the council has no ability to compel administrative personnel to come before the council to explain anything without an official investigation and subpoena, including on matters that the council must decide.

This was illustrated last year when the last council questioned the methodology- reported exclusively here, here and here- that the Department of Personnel uses to “reallocate” jobs- some say in order to manipulate the civil service system to place a mayor’s favored but unskilled choice in a job in place of a appropriately skilled and experienced hire.

But when the council tried to ask Personnel Services Division Malcolm “Mel” Fernandez to come before the council and explain himself, he actually refused.

But really what do you expect? We’ve been ambivalent from the start of a CM form of government and many of Trask’s political and policy arguments and criticisms are well founded- although what they’re doing in a legal analysis is a mystery.

They come from not just the overstated benefits contained in Lewis’s proposal- as drawn up and submitted by former charter commission member, the late Walter Briant- but from the actual piss-poor proposal which was apparently hastily drawn up by substituting the words “county manager” for the word mayor in the county charter and then adding a brief description of the method of appointment.

We’ve recommended from the start that the proponents slow down and properly study all relevant matters including the state constitution and laws, the political culture on Kaua`i, the real world way our system currently works- and doesn’t work- and an examination of the literally hundreds of different CM set-ups in use around the country (which certainly belies Trask’s contention that they violate the national constitution and national laws) and draw up a well considered specific proposal... something Trask even admits might pass legal muster before he contradicts himself.

We’ll have more when we get the OCA version and go over it but on first blush, as with another Trask penned option, it appears this one is also “fatally flawed”.


Doug said...

"the council has no ability to compel administrative personnel to come before the council to explain anything without an official investigation and subpoena"

First... has the Council ever actually went the official investigation and subpoena route? If not, then they are fools for not at least trying to exhaust their existing powers before seeking a Charter change, aren't they?

Second, under a manager system, who or what would lead the Executive Branch? If that leader is chosen by the Legislative Branch, then in effect there would be no autonomous Executive Branch, and thus no separation of powers. That's how I interpret the CA opinion.

charley foster said...

I think a better way for the county attorney to have argued it would have been to point out that plain text of HRS §46-1.5(1) requires counties to "establish the county executive, administrative, and legislative structure and organization," and that the proposed manager system would establish only an "administrative and legislative structure" in violation of the plain language of the statute. As Doug points out, a "mayor" who is chosen by and serves at the pleasure of the council is not really an "executive." It is true that separation of powers is at the heart of the issue and of the three-branches requirement. But it's possible to argue that the plain meaning of the statute requires an independent executive department without having to invoke that other doctrine.

Rob said...

OMG - How can I contact Tony Sommers?
I have the rest of the story, the Alves curse!