A Dedicated Charter Commission

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - February 22, 2006
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Next November, Oahu voters will have an opportunity to vote for their preferred candidates for various city, state and federal offices. They will also be voting on changes to the Honolulu City and County Charter, our local equivalent to a Constitution.

Starting last July, these proposed ballot measures - a little more than 100 in all - have been collected, organized and considered by the Honolulu Charter Commission and its dedicated staff. Six commissioners are appointed by the City Council, and seven by the mayor, including his designated chair of the commission.

As one of the 13 charter commissioners, I have been intimately involved in the process, and extremely impressed by the efficacy of this most fundamental of democratic processes. We represent a cross section of both government and private sector experience, with backgrounds in law, architecture, labor relations, publishing, conservation, military, education and planning, among others.

The initial solicitation for proposals for charter amendments was announced in both Honolulu daily newspapers in July and continued through Oct. 31. More than 100 proposals were submitted for the commission’s consideration, and originated from both within and without government. With the exception of a few proposals we personally initiated, the origins of proposals are unknown to the commissioners so that debate will be as objective as possible. For the most part, we come to the table with no personal agendas. All meetings are open to the public, and the agenda of each coming meeting and minutes of the last have been published on the commission’s web site: http://www.honolulu.gov/chc

All debate and consideration is guided by the commission’s mission statement: “The City Charter should enhance the quality of life for the residents of the City and County of Honolulu: Provide an open, accessible and participatory government with justice and equality; organize government in an efficient and effective manner; enhance the quality of public services; involve residents in the decision-making process; and promote the sustainable use of the City and County of Honolulu’s limited resources for future generations.”

In order to make the process manageable, commission staff divided the proposals into broad categories such as Planning and Zoning, Ethics, Budget/Taxes, New Agencies/Programs, Department/Director Descriptions, Neighborhood Commissions and Housekeeping Amendments. Within these categories, proposals varied widely: to allow the Ethics Commission to impose fines, to establish “green” building standards, to establish a temporary agency to develop the new transportation system, to establish urban growth boundaries, to merge the Emergency Services Department and Fire Department, merge Board of Water Supply and Department of Waste Water Management, to further regulate genetic agriculture - to name only a few.

Public testimony was encouraged and heard in every meeting. It came from City Council members and department heads, from professionals and experts in many fields, from community activists, and from common taxpayers off the street. In many cases it was passionate, and in most cases, well-informed. In some cases, it actually made the difference in a proposal going on to the next level of consideration or not. In all cases it contributed to a better, more collaborative charter amendment process.

Every proposal requires a majority vote of the commission to go on to the next level of consideration, and as of Feb. 1, 39 proposals of 93 considered have passed. During the month of March, public hearings will be held in various high schools across Oahu. These will be informational as well as provide another opportunity for public input. Times and places for these hearings can be obtained on the commission web site or by phone at 592-8622.

The Charter Commission judges each proposal on its merit, yet it would be unmanageable for all worthy proposals to go on the November ballot.

So when you study the proposed amendments before you go to the poll, understand that a great deal of time, energy and careful consideration has gone into the process.

No, it’s not a perfect system, but like the democracy it represents, it is the fairest one we know.

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