Committee to debate county governance gets underway

WAILUKU – Maui County residents are toying with an idea that no other county in Hawaii has tried before – a council-manager form of government, which could replace the current mayor-council system that has been in place since 1969.

But it remains to be seen whether the idea, a common form of municipal government on the Mainland, becomes a proposed Maui County Charter amendment or even the next step in the evolution of county government.

“Nobody in Hawaii’s ever done this,” said Wailuku attorney and former state Rep. Anthony “Tony” Takitani, who was elected as chairman of the Special Committee on County Governance at its first official meeting Thursday in Council Chambers. The two systems of county government are “serving the people in two absolutely different ways. How do you compare that? We’ve got to figure that out.”

“I think . . . we’re going to have to get a little bit more information about what works and what doesn’t work in the present system,” he said.

The committee has 180 days to do its work, a timeframe that would allow a charter amendment proposal, if it comes to that.

South Maui resident Madge Schaefer was elected as vice chairwoman of the panel. An at-large member of the committee, she is a member of the Maui Meadows Neighborhood Association and is a former Thousand Oaks, Calif., city council member.

“There will be a lot of controversy, whether we like it or not,” Schaefer said. “I think it’s important that we listen and work to build a consensus and understand this issue.”

The panel heard from Dave Mora, a senior adviser for the International City/County Management Association. Nationwide, about 45 percent of counties with populations of more than 100,000 have a council-manager system of government, he said.

A council-manager form of government would still include an elected mayor and council, Mora said. However, the system is engineered to allow the council and mayor to concentrate on tasks such as policymaking and budgeting. The elected officials hire a manager to implement policies and the budget.

Mora emphasized that the manager would not be in charge of the county – he or she would answer to the elected officials.

Supporters of the model say that it more clearly separates politics from county issues and creates greater accountability for elected officials. It also ensures that public services continue even if administrations change, Mora said. While the system works in many places, it’s not a solution to all problems, he added.

“There is no perfect solution to every problem,” Mora said. “There are unique solutions that can be developed to meet local needs, and I think that is perhaps the journey that you’re on.”

This is not the first time the topic of forming a new county government has come up.

The 2011-12 Maui County Charter Commission discussed changing county governance, but it didn’t have enough time to make changes, said Maui County Council Chairman Mike White, who introduced the council resolution to create the special committee.

The panel’s 11 members are tasked with examining whether a council-manager form of government would improve operations and making a recommendation to the council. That could include a proposed charter amendment that would go before voters in the November general election.

“We should have the discussion regardless of which way it ends up going,” White said. “It’s responsible for us after 50 years to take a look and see whether we can improve on the way government works for the community.”

The county Cost of Government Commission also is studying the council-manager system of government, although from the perspectives of efficiency, economy and costs, said commission Vice Chairman Paul Kailiponi.

He said that the special committee, rather than the commission, should address the topics of accountability and whether a council-manager system could limit the influence of politics on county issues.

The committee plans to meet every second and fourth Thursday of the month in Council Chambers. The next two meetings are set for 12:30 p.m. Dec. 23 and 1 p.m. Jan. 14.

Business consultant and facilitator Lori Teragawachi will provide guidance and assistance at each meeting.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

* Governance committee. Special Committee on County Governance Vice Chairwoman Madge Schaefer is not a member of the Maui Meadows Neighborhood Association. Her position was misidentified in a story on Page A1 Friday.

The Maui News apologizes for the errors.