YOUR GUIDE TO THE PROPOSED 2016 HONOLULU CHARTER AMENDMENTS
By Natalie Iwasa, CPA, CFE
Natalie Iwasa is a Certified Public Accountant and Certified Fraud Examiner. Her education, experience and common sense gives her the ability to contemplate the unintended consequences of complicated issues such as the following analysis of the 20 proposed 2016 Honolulu Charter amendments. In addition to her professional career, Natalie Chairs the Hawai`i Kai Neighborhood Board.
Considering herself to be a “Community Advocate,” Ms. Iwasa routinely attends the Honolulu Charter Commission and City Council meetings and publishes her enlightened analysis with links to her research on her blog, “What Natalie Thinks.”
Natalie is also known as “Bike Mom” because of her advocacy for the popular sport. In 2014, Ms. Iwasa ran unsuccessfully for the District-4 seat on the Honolulu City Council and garnered 22.5% of the vote. We hope her first campaign for public office will not be her last. Learn more about Natalie Iwasa HERE – Scott Foster, Communications Director
WHEN YOU VOTE IN THE GENERAL ELECTION THIS YEAR, YOU WILL RECEIVE TWO BALLOTS. One ballot will contain 20 Honolulu Charter Amendment questions. This may look daunting. The Honolulu Charter Commission has put out a brochure explaining the questions, but many voters are looking for additional information. To help you determine how to vote, following are explanations about each question. NOTE: All amendments, related original proposals, minutes to meetings and testimonies as well as videos of meetings are available online HERE.
Question 1. There have been numerous reports about investigations and concerns related to Police Chief Kealoha, yet neither the mayor nor police commission has taken action. This amendment would make it clear that the chief of police may be removed or suspended by the commission and provides several examples for guidance. The proposal allows the police commission to hold the chief accountable by requiring the chief to submit written responses for reasons of disagreement with the commission’s findings. It also authorizes the issuance of subpoenas and requires attendance of witnesses. Voters should vote “YES” on this.
Question 2. Out of several proposals to improve the Honolulu Ethics Commission, this is the only one that will be on the ballot. Currently the staff attorney’s salary is lower than comparable positions within the city. This can make it difficult to hire and retain qualified attorneys. The proposed change would allow the commission to set salaries within certain limits. This one is a “YES” as well.
Question 3. It has been the practice of the current mayor to cut back budgets for all departments as the fiscal year end gets closer. While it is good fiscal practice to regularly monitor spending, questionable motives could be behind budget cuts for this office (and the ethics commission). The proposed amendment would therefore disallow the mayor from altering the budget after it has been approved by the Honolulu City Council. (The council would retain its ability to change the budget as is currently allowed.) In order to be effective, the prosecutor’s office should be allowed to control its budget in this manner. Vote “YES.”
Question 4. The question contains three parts: 1) replaces the current Transportation Commission with a Rate Commission; 2) puts rail operations and maintenance under the Department of Transportation Services; and 3) clarifies and increases the HART board responsibilities and authority. Refer to my detailed blog post of and vote “NO.”
Question 5. This amendment would allow more people to qualify for affordable housing by increasing the threshold from less than 50% to 60% or less of the median household income, but it disallows the fund from being used for maintenance of the affordable housing and reduces the length of affordability from “in perpetuity” to at least 60 years. Supporters of this proposed amendment say that we need to reduce the affordability term in order to entice more developers to create affordable housing. What happens after 60 years? Do we expect that suddenly the need for affordable housing will be gone? How will the disallowance of using the fund for maintenance impact housing units? The more funds are restricted, the less flexibility we have in the budgeting process. That puts pressure on increasing taxes or reducing programs and city services. For these reasons, I recommend a “NO” vote on this one.
Question 6. This amendment would require functional plans for wastewater, solid waste and parks and recreation, an energy efficiency plan for facilities maintenance and an energy conservation and emissions reduction plan for transportation services. It also requires our development plans to promote smart and sustainable communities. Five-year updates would be required except for the energy efficiency plan, which would have to be updated annually. It should be noted that current city plans that require five-year updates are taking as long as a decade or more to review and update. For example, the review and update for the 2002 Oahu General Plan has been stalled since October 2013. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on plan updates. In addition, five-year updates are unrealistic. For these reasons, I suggest a “NO” vote on this.
Question 7. This amendment would create a new Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency under the managing director. The amendment would also create an advisory commission that would meet twice per year. The Charter Commission did not look at costs that will be incurred for any of these amendments. The smallest office we currently have is the Office of Housing. Its budget for this fiscal year is over $.5 million, plus payroll taxes and employee benefits. We are facing billions of dollars in rail costs, mandated wastewater treatment improvements and unfunded retirement and other employee benefit liabilities. I therefore suggest a “NO” vote on 7.
Question 8. This amendment would create a new department of land management with various duties and powers. The focus would be on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) special districts. (Note we already have a division for TOD under the Department of Planning and Permitting.) The proposal specifically excludes land under the Department of Parks and Recreation. During commission discussions it was noted that management of city-owned lands is in various departments and that there is no inventory of these lands. Discussions did not include details of the cost to create this department. We should have an inventory of our lands, but that task does not need a charter amendment to be done. Let’s not add to our bureaucracy at this time. Vote “NO.”
Question 9. This amendment would take .5% of estimated real property tax revenues annually and put them in a special fund to be used for various zoo activities. Unused funds could not be used for other programs. Special funds such as this are bad fiscal policy, because they erode the base of city revenues and remove flexibility. In addition, the impetus for this fund was the recent loss of accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The loss of accreditation was due to several factors, most of which cannot be fixed by mandatory funding. It should also be noted the city council has the power to appropriate more funds as it deems necessary or as the public requests. Voters should vote “NO” on this one.
Question 10. This amendment restores the mayor’s power to create special funds and thereby brings back balance between the executive and legislative branches. I recommend a “YES” vote.
Question 11. This question creates a Clean Water and Natural Lands (CWNL) advisory commission under the Department of Budget and Fiscal Services. It basically moves the current commission into the charter, but it changes the grant approval and appointment processes. Current wording in the charter requires the fund be used “to purchase or otherwise acquire real estate.” This has been narrowly interpreted by city administrators and caused participating organizations to go through additional appraisal and legal steps. The resulting question is a compromise and gives city administrators more control over the process. This compromise trades one problem, concerns about how the administration handles grants recommended by the CWNL commission, with potential concerns about how the administration handles the proposals prior to submitting them to the commission. It also appears costs to administer this fund will increase, due to the additional administrative responsibilities. For these reasons, I recommend a “NO” vote.
Question 12. This proposed amendment requires mandatory periodic reviews of boards and commissions. One board that should be regularly reviewed is HART, but it has been excluded from this amendment. Others excluded are the Board of Water Supply and other boards or commissions mandated by federal or state law. The manner and timing of review would be determined by ordinance, which would be put in place after the amendment passes. During commission meetings, there was discussion about the neighborhood board system including an amendment to eliminate the Neighborhood Board Commission, which was opposed by many individuals. This appears to be another attempt to remove neighborhood boards. Council already has the power to require reviews of boards and commissions. Please vote “NO” on this question.
Question 13. This amendment requires city grants, with the exception of those mandated by federal or state government, to go through the current grants-in-aid (GIA) process. Councilmembers have routinely included grants in the budget via line-item additions, even though they had not gone through a formal approval process. In some cases, no application was submitted. This amendment would disallow that practice. In addition, grants that currently go through the mayor’s office and any other city grants will also be required to go through the GIA process. Vote “YES” on this to help cut down on potential abuses.
Question 14. This amendment would increase the number of days for holding special elections from 60 to 120 days. According to the City Clerk, the current 60 day deadline does not allow adequate time for special election ballots to be sent to overseas voters. No testimony was in opposition to this change. Vote “YES.”
Question 15. This question would increase term limits from two to three for the mayor and councilmembers and institute them for the city prosecutor. Incumbents currently have a significant advantage over new comers. In addition, the only reason I can think of not to have term limits is when someone is doing a great job, and people want to keep that person in office. That happens rarely, while the opposite happens much more frequently. Vote “NO” on extending term limits.
Question 16. This amendment shifts responsibilities for minor construction projects from the Department of Design and Construction to various other departments and creates certain other duties. During discussions, questions were raised regarding powers that are already present that would allow certain reorganizations to take place, and according to meeting minutes, corporation counsel agreed reorganization is already possible. At least one group is concerned that powers given to the Department of Environmental Services are not clear. I suggest a “NO” vote on 16.
Question 17. This amendment would allow the mayor to designate certain individuals the authority to sign certain documents. It may be a good idea to allow the mayor to delegate signing authority in cases where he (or she) is off island or otherwise unavailable. This amendment, however, does not include any type of restrictions on when delegation would be allowed. I therefore suggest a “NO” vote on 17.
Question 18. This amendment would increase the fire commission from five to seven members as well as revise the duties of the fire chief. This is the combination of two proposals, #86 and #87. The argument for more commissioners was they are needed to help meet quorum, and the reason for a change in chief’s duties is to bring them in line with the services already being provided. I was unable to find any information about the fire commission not meeting quorums and therefore am unable to evaluate the need for additional commissioners. I therefore suggest a “NO” vote.
Question 19. This amendment would remove the requirement that no more than a majority of the nine members of the council’s reapportionment commission be from one political party. The justification given for this proposed change is that council races are nonpartisan. Without this requirement, it would potentially be easier to for the commission to redraw district lines to favor one party over another. Vote “NO.”
Question 20. This question contains several amendments that have been labeled housekeeping. This question contains important changes, including (a), which brings the city public records law into alignment with the state law and (d), which requires HART contracts to be reviewed by Corporation Counsel. (Note that this is already being done.) Vote “YES.”