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Voters weigh in on more than just candidates

Ballot includes seven charter amendments

For years, elected officials have toyed with the idea of a county manager system.

It’s been widely employed in governments across the country, and basically works like this: the county hires a professional manager who is in charge of day-to-day operations, overseeing departments and making sure county services run smoothly.

Supporters say the system would reduce turnover and take the politics out of county operations by letting a professional manager rather than an elected official pick department heads and handle things like water and trash pickup.

Opponents have argued that it’s impossible to take the politics out of government, and that a county manager would take duties away from the mayor and install an unelected official in a high position of power.

But both sides seem to agree on one thing — the system would bring major change to Maui County. As ballots are mailed out and voting service centers open across the county today, voters will get to decide whether it’s a change they want.

In addition to choosing local lawmakers and the next president, Maui County voters have seven charter amendments to review on the ballot this year, including the proposal to create an Office of the Managing Director. The charter is Maui County’s guiding document; it lays out the powers of the council, the mayor and the departments. Every election the council gets to propose changes that they feel will clean up the document or close up loopholes, and voters get the final say.

This year, the council has proposed putting term limits on both the mayor and council. While the charter does limit the number of consecutive years an official can serve, candidates can return to office after stepping down for a term, and many have chosen to do so. Under the charter amendment, council members would be limited to no more than five, two-year terms, while the mayor would be restricted to no more than two, four-year terms.

Another major proposal calls for creating a county Department of Agriculture, a move supporters say would boost food security in Maui County and help local farmers find funding. The amendment says that a new department won’t add more regulatory barriers, but some farmers worry that’s exactly what will happen. Some also argue that creating a new department would cost more taxpayer dollars during difficult economic times, though the county already spends millions on agriculture, others say.

One of the more complicated amendments would clarify how the charter is interpreted. It requires corporation counsel (the county’s attorneys) or special counsel (an outside attorney) to seek judicial action when the administration and the council disagree on interpretation of the charter. That’s happened a couple of times over Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino’s first term — once when he temporarily installed a department director who’d been rejected by the council, and again when he moved ahead with a Supreme Court case over the Lahaina injection wells after council members voted to withdraw. Both times, each side disputed who truly had the power under the charter.

In another issue over balance of power, one charter amendment calls for having the mayor appoint two members of the Charter Commission and the council appoint nine (one per council member). Currently, the mayor appoints all 11 with council confirmation, and supporters of the change say this would right the scales between branches of government. Opponents, though, feel it’s a power grab by the council who already has the right to vet the mayor’s choices.

Lastly, another amendment calls for increasing the minimum amount of real property tax revenues that go into the affordable housing fund from 2 to 3 percent. The charter currently calls for setting aside property taxes for housing through 2021; this change would extend the requirement beyond that. Council members in favor said it’s worth investing more in desperately needed housing; those against are concerned about committing more funds at a time of economic uncertainty.

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

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