Four Charter Amendment Questions

xkcd voting

Earlier this week, ballots began to arrive across the island of Oʻahu as the 2020 election season finally reaches the closing stretch. Though nearly all the attention this year has been on the handful of high-profile races for Honolulu Mayor and Prosecutor, I’ve also been focused on a number of state legislative races.

But when my ballot arrived, I realized there were four Charter Amendment questions included that I’d given no thought to. So now I am doing the work of learning about them and, hopefully, providing some useful information to help folks make their decision on how to vote for these:

  1. Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to establish for the Prosecuting Attorney for the City and County of Honolulu a term limit of two consecutive full four-year terms, the same term limit as is applicable to the Mayor and Councilmembers of the City and County of Honolulu?
  2. Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to establish a Youth Commission under the Managing Director?
  3. Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to allow the Honolulu Ethics Commission to control its own budget after it has been enacted?
  4. Shall the Revised Charter be amended to require the ethics commission staff to be appointed based on merit principles, but exempt from the civil service position classification plan, and to have the salaries of all ethics commission staff set by the ethics commission, subject to specified limitations?

General Background

These four amendments to the City Charter are proposed by the City Council, originating from resolutions introduced by Councilpersons Menor (1 & 4), Waters (2 & 3). All four went through the process of hearings and public testimony.

I will break down my thoughts on each below, but if you want to take the time yourself to review each resolution and accompanying documents (testimony, committee reports, etc.) you can find them here:

  1. Term Limits:
  2. Youth Commission:
  3. Ethics Commission Budget:
  4. Ethics Commission Staff:

Term Limit for the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney

This one is pretty straightforward, with little testimony provided to the committee or council. While I suspect it will pass with flying colors, I will be voting “no”.

In general, I am opposed to term limits. Most people support term limits for elected officials as a means of, as the resolution says, “limiting the ability of City officials to become entrenched in power and thereby in a position to abuse the powers entrusted to them….” While I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, we do already have a mechanism to remove people from office if they become “entrenched” or begin to “abuse the powers entrusted to them.” We call it an election. Or in some cases, impeachment.

Every election, voters must choose to either return someone to office or not. Of course, the system isn’t perfect. What if the incumbent has no challenger, thus eliminating the voter’s choice? Sure, that happens far more than maybe it should, but the lack of a challenger doesn’t to me make term limits necessary. And when an incumbent’s term is up, we’re potentially forced to select from a group of candidates who may or may not be equipped to do the job, just because it was arbitrarily decided that that incumbent (good or bad) has served their limit?

I won’t deny the corruption that has taken root inside the Prosecutor’s Office (and elsewhere), but I don’t believe term limits is a real solution. Rather, it’s a band-aid that merely addresses symptoms.

Until the electorate is truly engaged, until the broken system of campaign spending and the toxic influence of money in politics is addressed, there will continue to be politicians who will take advantage. Enacting term limits won’t fix any of that. Good officials or bad, term limits deny the electorate the ability to choose for themselves.

I don’t believe it leads to better government. Just a revolving door.

The Youth Commission

The stated purpose of this amendment is to encourage increased participation of young people in local politics and government. Certainly a noble purpose and an easy amendment to support.

I’ll be voting “yes”. I would be surprised if this one doesn’t pass.

There were a number of individuals and organizations who testified in support, including my friend Jun Shin on behalf of Young Progressives Demanding Action (YPDA). I hope Jun will be among the first appointed, should this become law. I didn’t see any testimony in opposition. (Who would oppose such a thing?)

The original resolution was amended by the Council to include language requiring members of the Youth Commission who are over the age of 18 to be registered to vote in Hawaiʻi. It was also amended to exempt those under the age of 18 from being required to submit financial disclosures, as is otherwise required by law. Both reasonable and prudent amendments.

I wholeheartedly support establishing this Youth Commission but cannot help but wonder how effective, or influential it will be. In politics, both local and national, I have seen young voters largely ignored again and again. It will be interesting to see what kind of “youths” will be appointed. In my time in local politics, I’ve also seen policymakers ignore again and again the recommendations of various boards and commissions when they run contrary to certain entrenched interests.

I will watch closely to see what kind of real impact and influence this Youth Commission will have on the machinations of government.

The Ethics Commission Budget

Should the Ethics Commission be in control of its’ budget, once approved by the Mayor? Certainly.

All the testimony received by the Committee and Council, save one, supported the resolution’s passage. The testimony in opposition didn’t give reasons but requested that the topic be tabled until an easing of social distancing would allow for a greater level of discussion.

The Ethics Commission is administratively attached to the City’s Department of Corporation Counsel, which serves as the “chief legal adviser and legal representative of all agencies, the council and officers and employees in matters relating to their official powers and duties.” (Chapter 2, Section 5-201 of the Revised Charter) Currently, as an attached agency to the Corporation Counsel, the Ethics Commission has no direct control or discretion over its own budget. Rather it relies on the Corporation Counsel for oversight.

As such, the Ethics Commission is currently at the mercy of the Corporation Counsel for approval of expenditures. One of the testifiers pointed to an example in which the commission sought permission to purchase a $600 GPS tracking device for use in an ongoing investigation about overtime abuse. The request was denied and the commission was unable to advance their investigation.

At a time when the city seems rife with scandal and corruption, the Ethics Commission cannot be at the mercy of the city’s lawyers, whose job it is to defend the city. Not necessarily to bring to light ethics violations.

I’ll be voting “yes”.

The Ethics Commission Staff

Saving the best (or most confusing?) one for last, we come to the question of whether or not the Ethics Commission should be exempt from the civil service position classification plan.

At first glance, my instinct was to say “no” to this one, but I knew I needed to dig in a bit (the main impetus for this blog post). Generally, I oppose anything that appears to carve out exemptions from civil service statutes. However, the Ethics Commission and its staff are already exempt. Ok, fine.

Rather, this amendment to the charter exempts the commission from the strictures of the city’s position classification plan, which sets job descriptions and salaries to provide for some uniformity and consistency.

Given the Ethics Commission’s somewhat unique role in city government, they support this amendment which would allow them flexibility in describing job descriptions for specialized positions and to set salaries as they deem necessary.

This all seems reasonable to me.

I will point out that there was one piece of testimony in opposition. The testifier seemed to believe that, because the resolution was introduced “by request” of some unknown person or entity, there is something nefarious going on here. I don’t think so.

“By request” is a not unusual mechanism for the introduction of legislation where the introducer simply indicates they are doing so at the request of another party. It can indicate the introducer isn’t necessarily supportive of the measure. If you look at the Governor’s package of every year, every single bill is introduced “by request” by the Senate President and the House Speaker. So this type of introduction isn’t unusual either at the County or State level.

Ultimately, given the rash of corruption charges sweeping through the city government, it seems like a good time to be paying greater attention to the Ethics Commission and giving them, within reason, more flexibility and autonomy. I don’t see this proposed amendment as anything more than doing just that. As such, I will be voting “yes” on this one as well.

Don’t Forget to Vote

I can’t end without reminding everyone to make sure their ballot is returned in time to be counted. If you put your ballot back in the mail make sure you do so before October 27. If you complete your ballot after that date, you should drop it at a voter service center or place of deposit.

You can check out other FAQs about voting by mail here.

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