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Maui County has increased civic engagement through online meetings

COUNCIL'S 3 MINUTES

The National Association of Counties will honor Maui County with an achievement award for “enhancing civic engagement through online legislative meetings” — in the category of Civic Education and Public Information — at the NACo Annual Conference in Prince George’s County, Maryland, on July 11.

On March 16, 2020, Gov. David Ige issued his first COVID-19 emergency proclamation, which partially suspended the public meetings statute, known as the Sunshine Law, to authorize online meetings.

Meetings held during the emergency weren’t required to be open to the public. “Boards” subject to the Sunshine Law, including the Maui County Council and its committees, were merely asked to “consider reasonable measures to allow public participation.”

The council decided to prioritize openness.

Like all municipalities, Maui County was faced with many serious challenges at the pandemic’s onset, including travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and social-distancing requirements. The legislative branch’s operations couldn’t continue as normal.

The issues were exacerbated by Maui County’s unique geography, with residents on three different islands and in remote, rural locations.

On March 25, 2020, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino issued the first stay-at-home order. That same day, he presented his fiscal year 2021 budget proposal.

Under the Maui County Charter, the council had until June 10 to complete its annual budget deliberations. This process –known as the budget session — typically includes daylong committee meetings for more than a month.

The budget session also traditionally includes off-site meetings in each residency area to give residents an equal opportunity to share their priorities and opinions on how resources should be used.

The clock was ticking for the council to create a budget session that was both transparent and efficient, even in the midst of an unforeseen public-health crisis.

Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, chair of the budget committee, and her unrelenting staff introduced the council to BlueJeans. The council members quickly adapted to this new platform, and in the process, changed the course of public interaction and communications and critical legislative operations in Maui County.

Considering the amount of stress and hardship the community was under, council members determined it was more important than ever to keep the lines of communication open between residents and their elected representatives — while also protecting public health and safety.

The council had the following objectives in transitioning from in-person to online meetings:

• Enable meetings to take place as scheduled in the posted calendar.

• Provide opportunities for live testimony.

• Transition as efficiently as possible, with minimal interruption of services and maximum public access.

After analyzing options, the council decided to use the BlueJeans videoconferencing service as its online platform. By the end of March 2020, the platform had been tested, training materials developed and procedures implemented for online legislative meetings.

By early May 2020, all council and committee meetings were being conducted online, with live testimony accepted by video or phone. The legislative work of the council and its committees wasn’t deterred by the pandemic, as 172 online meetings were held last year.

The council and public discovered online meetings increased accessibility and responsiveness in the county’s legislative process.

Prior to the pandemic, meetings were usually held in the Council Chamber in Wailuku, and members of the public could provide testimony either in person in Wailuku or via phone from district offices in Hana, Lana’i and Moloka’i. With online meetings, residents have testified from the beach, the supermarket, their backyard, their car — from wherever they are when a meeting is taking place

In its email announcing the award, NACo described the council’s system of online meetings as an “innovative program” that produces “positive results for Maui County residents.”

Because of the benefits to our constituents, the council is trying to make live testimony via phone and videoconference a part of the new normal, even after the emergency declaration expires. But we need Governor Ige’s help.

At the council’s behest, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 1034 (2021), which would amend the Sunshine Law to permanently allow online meetings, with live testimony from anywhere, as of Jan 1. Please join me in urging the governor to sign the bill.

I’m proud to be part of an amazing team and commend my fellow council members and our staff for their outstanding contributions in prioritizing transparency and accessibility in Maui County’s legislative work.

* Alice L. Lee is the Chair of the Maui County Council. She holds the County Council seat for the Wailuku-Waihe’e-Waikapu residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.

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