Stricter term limits, Agriculture Department pass its first test

Dividing up Department of Housing and Human Concerns fails

Proposals to establish stricter term limits for the mayor and County Council members, to create a county Department of Agriculture and to give the council sway over the mayor in choosing the next Charter Commission were among the charter amendments given preliminary approval by the council to appear on the November ballot.

During a daylong BlueJeans video conference Friday, five of six proposed charter amendments for the ballot received a supermajority of at least six members. These charter amendments and resolutions, if passed on second reading, will be placed on the general election ballot in November for the voters to decide.

Council Member Riki Hokama was excused from the meeting to tend to personal matters.

The proposed charter amendments passed on first reading:

• Establish stricter term limits for council members by limiting the number of terms a person may serve to five two-year terms. This eliminates the possibility of serving five terms, sitting out an election and running again. The vote was 7-1 with Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura opposed.

• Establish standards for interpreting and complying with the charter, including requiring judicial action to be filed within 30 days to seek clarity when a conflict in the interpretation of the charter is raised. This measure passed unanimously.

• Authorize the council to appoint nine members and the mayor to appoint two members of the 11-member Charter Commission. Currently, the mayor appoints the members and the council confirms. The commission meets every 10 years and will next meet in 2021. The vote was 6-2 with Sugimura and Kama opposed.

• Establish stricter term limits for the mayor by limiting the number of terms a person may serve as mayor to two full four-year terms. The vote was 7-1 with Sugimura opposed.

• Establish a Department of Agriculture. The vote was 6-2 with Kama and Sugimura opposed.

The proposal to divide the Department of Housing and Human Concerns into two separate departments, a Department of Housing and a Department of Human Concerns, failed in a 5-3 vote with Sugimura, Tasha Kama and Tamara Paltin opposed. The proposal will be sent to the Charter Commission for consideration.

A second and final reading of the proposed amendments that passed is set for July 24.

“The committee recognized the benefits of a knowledge base provided by council members with lengthy prior experience, and they also discussed the need to encourage governmental participation and develop new community leaders,” said Council Member Mike Molina, whose Governance, Ethics and Transparency Committee recommended the measures. “Allow the community to decide how they want their government to be structured.

“If it pans out and it gets put on the ballot and it passes, then that’s fine, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Council members had minimal discussion on the proposed charter amendments during the meeting.

Mayor Michael Victorino came out against the charter member appointment, the charter conflict and Department of Agriculture proposed amendments.

“The charter is the guiding document, how we run our government here, it’s not something to be taken lightly and be changed on a whim,” said Managing Director Sandy Baz.

Molina questioned the mayor’s apprehension about placing the proposed charter amendments before the voters, saying “it’s the public’s government — not ours, not the mayor’s, not the council’s.”

On the proposal to change the method of selection of the Charter Commission, Victorino said in a news release Friday night that the “proposed amendment would remove the ‘check and balance’ of appointing members to the Charter Commission, with the legislative branch, empowered to ‘stack’ the commission with its appointees.”

The proposed amendment gives the council nine appointments to the commission and the mayor two. The current charter leaves the appointments to the mayor with confirmation by the council.

The Charter Commission will convene by March 1 to review the charter and consider whether amendments are warranted to be put to the voters in the 2022 general election.

The proposed amendment on handling conflicting interpretations of the charter should be decided by the Charter Commission, the mayor said.

“The proposed standards of review are, themselves, open to subjective interpretation,” Victorino said. “Even now, the council can already seek a declaratory ruling from a judicial authority to resolve a conflict of interpretation of the County Charter. It’s unclear what this proposed amendment would accomplish.”

The mayor also opposed the creation of the county Department of Agriculture.

Baz told the council that “a desire and need for agriculture is incredibly important,” but that the state Department of Agriculture is already fulfilling the role. The creation of the department may “create a duplication of services or concerns,” he said.

The mayor said in his news release that he also was concerned about the cost of forming a new county department amid the economic uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Agriculture Department was a hot topic among about 50 people who tuned into the virtual meeting Friday.

Molokai resident Liko Wallace, as well as other small farmers and businesses, said an Agriculture Department would give the “community a voice.”

Council Member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez chimed in with her support, saying a department would provide personalized education, funding, advocacy and resources for land and sea farmers on Molokai, Lanai and Maui.

Those testifying in opposition said that investing in a new department amid the COVID-19 pandemic is irresponsible. Maui Chamber of Commerce office manager Amber Coutsos said “it’s not the right time” to create another department.

Others opposed to the department said it may create more obstacles, regulations and fees for farmers in the long term.

The council amended the charter amendment after public testimony to include that the department would not impose “additional regulatory barriers.”

“The charter is something that is sacred, and we should not be making changes just because we see we want something done,” said Tom Croly, owner of Dreams Come True on Maui Bed and Breakfast. “I urge this council to move this issue to next year’s Charter Commission where it can be properly vetted, where you have the time to properly consider it.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.


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