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County manager vote Friday

Council to hold hearing on ballot measure

The Maui County Council will decide Friday whether voters in November should weigh in on a long-debated charter amendment to hire a professional manager to oversee county operations.

The amendment, which passed first reading on March 27, is up for a public hearing at 9 a.m. Friday. After the hearing, the council will discuss and vote on whether to put the issue to the ballot.

Under the proposal, the mayor would serve as CEO of the county, while the managing director would act as a chief operating officer independent of the mayor’s term. Supporters have said this would create continuity and take the politics out of daily operations; opponents have said it places too much power in the hands of an unelected official.

The idea has evolved since it was discussed by the 2011-12 Charter Commission, recommended by a 2015-16 Special Committee on County Governance, and fell short of the ballot in 2016 and 2018.

The latest charter amendment, proposed by Council Member Kelly King, would replace the current Department of Management with an Office of the Managing Director.

The managing director would be hired through a recruitment and selection process involving the mayor, council chairperson and a three-member citizen group, with the mayor getting to make the final selection and the council in charge of approving the contract. The managing director would need five years of experience in an administrative capacity and would be tasked with appointment and removal of most department heads, creation and execution of the annual budget, evaluation of department performance and other management tasks.

Meanwhile, the mayor would supervise the managing director. He or she would still represent the county in intergovernmental affairs and have the authority to approve or veto bills, nominate board and commission members and enforce county laws.

Council Chairwoman Alice Lee, Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez and Council Members King, Tamara Paltin, Mike Molina and Shane Sinenci voted in favor of the proposal on March 27.

Lee said Wednesday that she initially had concerns about separation of powers because the original proposal allowed the council to choose the manager. However, she felt the latest version is “a compromise.” While she still had some reservations about an unelected manager functioning similarly to a mayor, she felt the system was worth a try.

“The person who is going to be managing director in this new scenario will be chosen on the basis of qualifications and not just relationships and friendships,” Lee said. “So as a result, one would think that this person could possibly do a very effective and professional job, because he or she will not necessarily be swayed by politics.”

Rawlins-Fernandez believed the new system would still preserve the balance of power “by retaining a meaningful chief executive officer role for the mayor, while also providing for a chief operations officer position that will remain employed through multiple mayoral terms for the benefit of consistency.”

She added that problems with the current system spurred the changes in the first place.

“The current model is imbalanced, giving the executive branch too much authority without a proper check, which was the impetus for this and other proposed charter amendments this term,” she said.

Council Member Riki Hokama, who voted against the proposal along with members Tasha Kama and Yuki Lei Sugimura, felt it was “irresponsible” to change one position in government when the county is on the verge of forming another Charter Commission to review and update the whole document.

He added that having a managing director would shift the power, “but the politics and everything else remains the same.” And, if the manager is appointed, what input would the public have at election time to change the direction of the county?

“I still think that both branches of county government should be led by an elected official chosen by the voters,” Hokama said. “I’m not really sure of what is structurally really the problem. . . . I think a lot of people’s gripe has been about individuals and personalities. They didn’t like the person. I don’t think it warrants enough to change the structure.”

Sugimura also had concerns about the powers allotted to the manager.

“The proposed charter amendment places a powerful county manager to be hired by ‘contract’ and vetted by the mayor, council chair and three citizens,” Sugimura said. “Who are these three citizens to qualify to take the place of the electorate to have a vote on hiring the most powerful person in the county? What is the cost of the contract to the taxpayer? Is there a ‘golden parachute’ to attract a high-powered manager?”

With the county busy fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Sugimura felt it just wasn’t the right time.

South Maui resident Mark Hyde, a longtime supporter of the system, said the proposal is years in the making and should be put on the ballot. He pointed out that this year’s voting will be by mail only, and with a presidential election, turnout will likely go up, ensuring that the most people possible get to weigh in.

“The world is significantly more complex than it was when we drafted and adopted a charter in 1968,” he said. “We have pandemics, we have climate change, and this to me is proof positive that we need to have a professional manager structure in our county government.”

The proposal also includes a number of changes following a dispute between the council and the mayor over director appointments last year.

Under the proposed amendment, anyone who has been disapproved by resolution becomes ineligible to serve as a department head on a temporary basis. The amendment also removes a provision that gives the mayor 60 days to make a new appointment following the council’s denial.

Friday’s public hearing will also cover a proposed charter amendment to increase the amount of real property tax revenues allocated to the affordable housing fund from 2 to 3 percent.

The hearing will be televised on Akaku Channel 53 and mauicounty.legistar.com. To testify by phone, call (408) 317-9253 and input meeting code 295235670. To join by videoconference, visit maui. bluejeans.com/295235670.

In order to be distributed at the meeting, written testimony must be emailed to county. clerk@mauicounty.us or faxed to (808) 270-7171 to the Office of the County Clerk at least 24 hours prior to the hearing. For questions, call 270-7748.

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

** This story published Thursday, April 16, 2020, includes a correction.

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