Ever since the first Maui County Charter Commission was organized in 1964, there have been debates over whether the Maui County Council should comprise elective council districts. So far, the debates have decided against elected council districts.
In all cases, the confounding issue has been the county's geographically distinct districts of Lanai and Molokai. With their small population relative to Maui's 144,444, Lanai (3,135) and Molokai (7,345) would not stand alone as representative elective districts on a nine-member County Council.
But some of the debate devolves into confusion if not duplicity over the history of the county's governmental system. Maui County has never had elective district representation in its governing body.
When the mayor-council form was approved in 1968, the charter did not provide for council members to "represent" a district. There were residency requirements to assure access to a council member in the outlying islands.
The original Board of Supervisors, created under a 1905 territorial law, was composed of five supervisors from each of five geographical districts, all elected by the county's entire electorate. Notably, at the time, Molokai qualified as a single district in terms of population and geography as did Hana, while Lanai was attached to Lahaina.
In that initial organization for county governance, voters also elected a county sheriff, five deputy sheriffs, a treasurer, an auditor, a county attorney and the county clerk.
Over the decades, there were modifications. In 1911, the chairman of the County Board of Supervisors was elected by voters rather than by board members. In 1929, the board was increased to seven members - six supervisors and the county chairman. There still was no district election of supervisors.
Statehood and the state constitution prompted Hawaii's Neighbor Island counties to reform their governance with what was perceived to be a more modern system of mayor and council - an elected chief executive officer to manage county departments, guided by an elected policymaking council. In contrast, each member of the Board of Supervisors presumed to have authority over county departments, confusing oversight.
A 1966 Charter Commission dealt with the concept of elected representative districts but recognized the inequity of geographical separation of Lanai and Molokai and opted to assure access without elective representation. Its charter set up a nine-member County Council, on which two members were to be residents of Lanai and Molokai.
The issue for the residents of the outlying districts is access to an elected representative - not representation. Lanai and Molokai residents accept that the resident council members from their islands are not necessarily the choice of residents of the outlying islands. But at least there was a council member they could call or confront on issues at home in Lanai City or Kaunakakai.
Lack of access is the basis for the challenge on Lanai to Sol Kaho'ohalahala's residency and questions about whether Riki Hokama really maintains a residence on the island. Whether they voted for Goro Hokama, Lanai voters knew there would be days when they could find Goro Hokama to express their concerns to him face to face, if only to vent over decisions from which he would not back down. Riki Hokama and Kaho'ohalahala both grew up on Lanai, but neither has been as open to hometown access once they were elected to office.
The 1976 Charter Commission confused the issue with residency requirements for five geographic areas of Maui while maintaining at-large voting for all nine seats, creating an illusion of elective districts without the substance.
The same issue applies in 2011. For residents of the outlying, small-population districts, access matters.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.