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Proposal looks to change council districts, election of members

Commission to begin vetting changes to County Charter

A voter drops a completed ballot into the box at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku on Oct. 27. The Maui Charter Commission is considering a proposed amendment that would change the way the Maui County Council is elected, going from nine members in nine districts to nine members divided between three districts of roughly equal population. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Proposals that would redraw Maui County Council districts and alter the way members are elected are among dozens of potential changes to local government that the Maui Charter Commission will vet over the next six months.

The 11-member volunteer group selected by the mayor and the council will begin its review of possible amendments to the Maui County Charter during a virtual meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday. The charter establishes the structure and organization of the county’s government, and every 10 years a commission is formed to study the document and propose amendments or draft a new charter. Amendments that it make it through vetting could end up on the 2022 election ballot for voters to consider.

The commission began its work in March and has been gathering input on possible charter amendments, which it now plans to review.

“We have 10 themes and 40 hours of meetings, so basically, it’s one theme per meeting for the next six months,” said Commission Chairman Lance Collins, a Maui-based attorney.

Other themes include budget and finance, ethics, planning and police.

Hundreds of residents wait in line to vote outside the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku on Nov. 3. The Maui Charter Commission is beginning its review of several proposed charter amendments that include changing election districts and moving to ranked-choice voting.

The commission is starting off with some of the most significant proposals brought by community and commission members, including one that would create a system of regional voting for residents to elect council members. Currently, residents across the entire county can vote for all nine council members, who represent individual districts.

Proposed by former Maui Community College professor Dick Mayer, the amendment would retain the nine council members but divide them between three regions of roughly equal population.

With the new districts, candidates would only need to campaign in one-third of the county, Mayer explained. This would make it easier for nonincumbent candidates, who find it expensive to campaign countywide and difficult to get their name out. Incumbents get a lot of exposure, including in televised and livestreamed meetings on Akaku and in the press.

“Quality individuals should be given the opportunity to become known without the financial burden of campaigning countywide,” he said in a letter to the commission in March. “At present voters may not know each candidate well, because candidates live distant from them. Consequently, voters may not vote in important council races. Dividing up the county into similar regions may help.”

While Mayer has suggested districts, the Charter Commission wants to see a separate commission appointed once every 10 years to make a determination on the district boundaries, similar to what Honolulu and Hawaii counties do, as well as the state Legislature, Collins said. He added that the U.S. Constitution requires that each district have equal population.

Each of the three districts would have one council member with a residency requirement for East Maui, Molokai or Lanai, to ensure smaller communities would be represented. The other two seats would be “at large,” meaning the candidates can come from any town or location within their district.

So, for example, if Kahului, Wailuku and East Maui were in one district (as suggested by Mayer), at least one council member must live in East Maui. However, voters could elect the other two council members from either district, whether that’s two council members from Kahului and none from Wailuku or vice versa. Other possibilities include having two members in the district from East Maui and the third from either of the other two areas.

Collins added that the commission does not expect to debate actual boundary lines of districts during Thursday’s meeting.

While the proposal aims to make it easier on candidates campaigning and voters making choices, the council’s current chairwoman is concerned the change may shift attention away from individual communities.

Council Chairwoman Alice Lee said that with nine residency districts, council members are able to cater to constituents in their own districts. If council members are grouped in threes by district, this may lessen the focus on some communities, Lee said.

Grouping areas such as Wailuku and Kahului may work, as they have similar concerns, but combining regions such as West Maui with Molokai or Lanai may not because of the diversity of their communities and issues, Lee said.

When asked for the mayor’s thoughts on the changes, Maui County Communications Director Brian Perry said Tuesday that the administration will defer comment while the proposals are under review by the Charter Commission.

In addition to possibly updating council districts, the panel is also considering a proposal by Commissioner Kauanoe Batangan that would transition the county to ranked-choice voting.

Voters would rank the candidates from first to last, and if no candidate receives an outright majority during the first tabulation of votes, then the candidate with the least number of “first-rank” votes is crossed off. Their votes are then given to the second-choice candidate of the voters who backed the eliminated candidate.

The process of counting and redistributing the bottom candidate’s votes continues until one candidate obtains a majority of votes, Collins said.

He added that having a ranked-choice voting system for both primary and general elections is more common in partisan elections, while having a ranked-choice voting only in the general election is more common in nonpartisan elections. (Maui County Council races are nonpartisan.)

The commission will discuss Thursday whether this proposal would involve a return to partisan elections or if primary elections would be eliminated for council members, Collins said.

The public can provide oral or written testimony at the meetings, during which commissioners will consider and make decisions on the proposals for each theme.

Written testimony submitted before the meeting is “ideal as it gives commissioners more time to think about the arguments and points raised,” Collins said. To submit comments, email charter.commission@mauicounty.gov.

Once the commission decides on proposals under a certain theme, in most cases that will be the end of the commission’s work on that theme and topics, unless there are compelling reasons, Collins added.

Currently there is no set deadline for the commission to make final recommendations on the charter amendments.

To view the agenda and BlueJeans link for Thursday’s meeting, visit mauicounty.gov/1791/Charter-Commission.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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