Honolulu Charter Amendments – Blank vs. “No” Vote

Some people are recommending “no” votes on all 20 Honolulu charter amendments.  The questions may seem overwhelming, but a straight “no” without understanding each question is irresponsible in my opinion.

The first thing to understand about voting on the charter amendments is that a blank vote doesn’t mean “no” or “yes.”  Here’s what the charter says about voting on amendments:

Section 15-103. Approval of Amendment or Revision -- 

No amendment or revision of this charter shall be effective 
unless approved by a majority of the voters voting thereon.

A blank vote is just blank and doesn’t count.  (Note that the state has different rules.  For state constitutional amendments to pass, a majority of the votes have to be “yes,” excluding blank and over votes, and more than 50% of the voters have to vote “yes” including blanks and over votes.  If more than 50% of the voters leave a state question blank, it acts as a “no” vote.)

Next it’s important to realize and acknowledge that these questions deserve thoughtful consideration.  If the majority of votes are “no,” opportunities for improvement in some areas of our city government will be missed.

For example, question 3 would allow salaries of staff attorneys of the Honolulu Ethics Commission (EC) to be set at a rate comparable to that of other attorneys within the city.  A “no” vote keeps the status quo, which makes it difficult for the EC to hire and retain a good attorney.  (They currently only have one on-staff counsel that this would apply to.)

Some people have pointed out that many of the issues behind these questions should not even be in the charter, and that is a valid point.  The Honolulu Charter Commission did consider rewriting the entire charter and putting just one massive question on the ballot.  I can understand why they didn’t do that, but we should look at simplifying our charter.  That would likely cut down on amendments as well as misunderstandings of what each amendment would do.

One other thing to consider regarding blank votes is that they do make a statement.  If the blanks outnumber the “yes” and “no” votes, perhaps it’s time to rethink the manner in which we make amendments.

Please also note that this process is not done after the election.  The Honolulu Charter Commission will have at least one more meeting prior to the end of the year.  At that time, they will prepare a final report that will be given to the next commission.  Testimony will be taken, and I encourage people to submit comments.  You can sign up for commission updates by sending an email to cclcharter@honolulu.gov.

Correction:  this post originally incorrectly stated the second part of the test required for passage of state constitutional amendments.

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20 Charter Amendments – Recommendations and Further Research

For some people, the election can’t come soon enough.  For others, such as voters who are still trying to decipher the 20 charter amendment ballot questions, the question is:  Will I have enough time to do research and make an informed decision?

I attended many of the Honolulu Charter Commission meetings and have put together what I consider to be important points about each question along with my suggestions on how to vote for each one.  That list is available at Hawaii Advocates For Consumer Rights.  (Thank you to Scott Foster for helping me to get this information out.)

For people who are interested in doing their own extended research, the following list may help guide you as you go through the Charter Commission’s website.  For each question, I’ve listed the proposal(s) upon which the questions were based and who introduced them.  You’ll need these numbers to trace through the minutes and testimonies.

  • Question 1 regarding the police commission – #18 (Senator Will Espero), #31 (Commissioner Kevin Mulligan), #159 (Senator Laura Thielen), C-1 and C-2 (Commissioner Mulligan)
  • Question 2 regarding staff attorney salaries for the Honolulu Ethics Commission – #39 (Honolulu Ethics Commission)
  • Question 3 regarding the Prosecuting Attorney’s budget #29 (Commissioner Donna Ikeda)
  • Question 4 regarding HART and rail – #76 and #76A (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
  • Question 5 regarding the Affordable Housing Fund – #3 (Councilmember Elefante) and #122 (American Planning Association)
  • Question 6 regarding long-term plans – #38 and #120 (American Planning Association), #54 (Commissioner Cheryl Soon)
  • Question 7 regarding an Office of Climate Change – #48 (Commissioner Soon) and #73 (Maxine Burkett)
  • Question 8 regarding a new Department of Land Management – #C-5 (Commissioner Soon), #106 (Paulette Tam)
  • Question 9 regarding the zoo fund – letter from Council Chair Martin and C-3 (Commissioner Guy Fujimura)
  • Question 10 regarding executive and legislative powers – #78 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
  • Question 11 regarding the Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund – #116 (Trust for Public Land)
  • Question 12 regarding reviews of boards and commissions – #40 (Commissioner Rick Tsujimura)
  • Question 13 regarding the Grants in Aid Fund – #C-7 (Commissioner initiated)
  • Question 14 regarding special elections deadline – #2 (City Clerk Glen Takahashi)
  • Question 15 regarding term limits – #44 (Commissioner Paul Oshiro)
  • Question 16 regarding minor construction projects – #77 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
  • Question 17 regarding the mayor’s signature – #80 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
  • Question 18 regarding the Honolulu Fire Commission – #86 & #87 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
  • Question 19 regarding the reapportionment commission – #35 (Commissioner Oshiro)
  • Question 20 “housekeeping”
    • a – #23 (Civil Beat Law Center)
    • b – #34 (Commissioner Oshiro)
    • c – #36 (Commissioner Oshiro)
    • d – #79 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
    • e – #90 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)

If you have questions on any of the proposed amendments, please leave a comment for me.  I’d be happy to try and help.

Update October 25, 2016, – correction and clarification.  It was noted that the description of Question 1 in the pamphlet provided by the Honolulu Charter Commission contains an error.  It indicates the chief can “only be removed for continuous maladministration.”  The charter actually makes it clear that this should not be construed as the only cause sufficient for removal of the chief.  I do not know what the impact of this error will have if this amendment passes, but I still recommend a “yes” vote.

Under Question 13 regarding the grants-in-aid process (GIA), certain city grants that currently have a process, e.g., the Clean Water and Natural Lands fund, would continue to go through that process.  Others, such as Leeward coast and Office of the Mayor on Economic Development, would be required to go through the GIA process.

Charter Amendment #4 on Rail – What’s Not in the Booklet

Voters should have received the 2016 Charter Amendments booklet this week.  There are 20 amendments for voters to read through and decipher.  Question 4 deals with the rail project and deserves much more discussion.

This ballot question is largely the result of a proposal submitted relatively late in the process.  During Honolulu Charter Commission meetings it was mentioned the charter amendment that created HART didn’t adequately consider how rail operations and maintenance (O&M) would work (or not) with TheBus and HandiVan, which are under the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services (DTS).

In addition, certain members of the HART board felt oversight of staff was too limited.  The proposal does make it clear the board sets the policies for the development of the rail system.

It would have been better to have a separate question regarding board powers, but the commission decided to combine these issues into this one question.

The question contains three parts:  1) replace the current Transportation Commission with a Rate Commission;  2) put rail O&M under DTS; and 3) clarify and increase the HART board responsibilities and authority.

Duties of a new Rate Commission would include creation of new sources of revenues.  The commission would also be authorized to collect and report transit data.  Discussions of this proposal did not address the issue of how riders’ personal information would be handled.

While it makes sense to have the rail fare system and route scheduling under the same agency as TheBus, we need to be careful how a transition between HART and DTS would be done.  In this case, everyone (employees, contractors and even vacant positions) who has primary responsibilities related to O&M would transfer to DTS on July 1, 2017.

Those transferred “shall suffer no loss of vacation allowance, sick leave, service credits, retirement benefits or other rights and privileges because of the transfer.”  So basically DTS will inherit HART’s liabilities without the capability of making any near-term changes.

Who are these people, specifically?  How much will this change cost?

With O&M out of the way, what shortcuts will be taken on the rest of the development of rail to meet budget and completion deadlines?  How much will this end up costing us more in the long run?

And how much consideration would DTS give to the quality of work prior to acceptance of the “completed” rail with pressures to simply get it going?

These questions should be answered before this amendment is passed.  Since the Honolulu City Council may introduce charter amendments for the next election, I urge everyone to vote “no” on this.

Honolulu Charter Commission Works on Wording for Proposed Amendments

As election season heats up, a group of people continue their work putting together potential amendments to the Revised Charter of Honolulu. On November 8, registered voters will have an opportunity to vote on proposals such as creation of new city departments, increased term limits and revisions to the rail project, among other issues.

At its July 13 meeting, the Honolulu Charter Commission, narrowed down the list of proposed amendments to 27.  All 27 will likely be on the ballot in some manner. Some may be combined. Due to tight deadlines, no significant amendments will be made to these proposals.

The Committee on Submission and Information is currently working on the wording that will be used for each question as well as educational materials for the public. The public will have an opportunity to provide input on these descriptions (in draft form) 10 a.m. Monday, when the committee comes back from a weekend recess and again 3:30 p.m. Friday, when the full commission meets.

Final wording for the 27 proposals is available on the commission’s website. Some of these require significant changes to city management, so it’s important that voters become familiar with them.

For example, proposal 76A transfers operations and maintenance of the rail project from HART to the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services (DTS), replaces the transportation commission with a new fare commission, and “clarifies” the role of the HART board.

It makes sense to have TheBus, HandiVan and rail under one umbrella, but this proposal also allows DTS to create new sources of revenue (Sec. 6-1703(g)), collect data (Sec. 6-1703(g)(5)) and accept gifts. We should look at these authorizations carefully.

A much-needed change under C-1 would allow the police commission to terminate or suspend the chief of police. The need for this change has become apparent within the past year. Regardless of current affairs, however, this is good policy.

Proposal C-7 revises the grants-in-aid fund by requiring it to be the sole source of funds for city grants (excluding federal, state and affordable housing grants). This will cut down on line-itemed grants, such as the half million dollars that was recently appropriated to Kosong Foundation, an organization that is not in compliance with state law, according to the state attorney general’s website. This amendment would put all nonprofits on equal footing and force them to go through the city’s compliance checklist and vetting process.

Others I think should pass are:

  • #23 – to conform the county public records law to state law;
  • #29 – to allow the prosecuting attorney’s office some autonomy with respect to its budget. (The Honolulu Ethics Commission should also be allowed this autonomy); and
  • #78 – allows the mayor to create special funds with the council’s approval.

Several that I think should not pass are:

  • #35 – deletes the requirement that no more than a majority of the reapportionment commission members shall be from the same political party;
  • #44 – would change term limits from two to three, i.e., allow for 12 consecutive years, for the mayor and councilmembers. It would also create term limits for the prosecuting attorney; and
  • #C-3 – would create a new fund for the zoo and mandate that .5% of the city’s real property taxes be used only for the zoo. (I support the zoo, but special funds like this are bad fiscal policy.)

Keeping up with the commission and the many changes that several proposals have gone through has been challenging. It should be noted I have not read every single proposal, and just because one hasn’t been mentioned does not mean it’s not important.

I encourage voters, residents and taxpayers to carefully review each proposal and continue to provide input to the charter commission. The wording on the ballot is at least as important as the wording of the underlying proposal.

 

Rail, TheBus and HandiVan Operations – Under HART or the Mayor?

One question that is almost guaranteed to be on the ballot this fall is whether the operations for rail, TheBus and HandiVan should be under one agency. It makes sense to have all operations and maintenance (O&M) functions combined from an economic as well as public transit standpoint.

As currently written, however, the charter authorizes HART to make decisions regarding rail ticket prices and schedules, while TheBus and HandiVan decisions are made by the city administration, with Honolulu City Council approval for certain decisions. It’s vital that schedules and fares be coordinated.

In order to determine the best structure, perhaps it would be easiest to start with what it shouldn’t be. We know having rail under the city’s Department of Transportation Services didn’t work. That’s why we now have HART. But HART isn’t working well either.

How about a separate entity with a different structure?

During the Honolulu Charter Commission’s last meeting, there was a good discussion about our current semi-autonomous agencies — HART and the Board of Water Supply. The main difference between the two is that HART is unable to generate enough revenue to be self sustaining. In fact, estimates of taxpayer subsidies are anywhere from 62% to 70% according to the Full Funding Grant Agreement.

Commissioners seemed to agree that fact alone means that a “semi-autonomous” agency is not the best option. Given that taxpayers will subsidize such a large part of the O&M, a political process is necessary, and that includes public input, transparency and accountability.

We’re left then some kind of board or commission under the mayor or HART. A number of proposals were introduced that suggest a merger of operations, and Commissioner Soon did quite a lot of research on other governance models. The models are as varied as the cities, but given our experience here, I think the best option is an elected board that is subject to sunshine laws, under the mayor with policy decisions made by the council. This would allow for greater accountability and transparency that is so sorely lacking under our current set up.

Other considerations include the Ansaldo contract and how it would be transferred, integrity of bus and van operations, so their funding is not “cannibalized” by rail, and coordination of any other contracts.

The commission has formed a group to discuss this issue further and will make recommendations for a vote at a future meeting. Their next meetings are set for March 17. Agendas and proposals are available on the commission’s website at http://honoluluchartercommission.org/.

As always, your comments are welcome here and by the commission at cclcharter@honolulu.gov.

HART Proposals to be Discussed Friday

On Friday afternoon the Honolulu Charter Commission will meet to discuss a dozen proposals related to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART). Let’s take a closer look.

Merging Rail, Bus and HandiVan

The following proposals would put the three modes of transportation under one agency:

  • #10 would terminate HART and put rail construction back under the mayor and city council;
  • #14 would create a single transit agency for bus, rail and HandiVan;
  • #47 would also create a single entity for transportation operations and maintenance with a transportation board that includes at least three members who have expertise in transportation operations and/or public finance;
  • #76 would remove operations and maintenance from HART and the Department of Transportation Services and create new public transit entity; and
  • #92 is a HART proposal and would create one agency for operations and maintenance.

Putting rail, bus and HandiVan under one agency makes sense, but we’ve seen that doesn’t work well under the mayor. Our current set up with HART also does not work. The Commission is sure to spend a lot of time discussing these options, but it seems the best solution is something in the middle, e.g., operations and maintenance under the mayor with some kind of board making key recommendations and the council making policy decisions and funding approvals.

Other HART-Initiated proposals

  • #93 would establish a transition committee that would make recommendations such as the best structure for a unified transit authority, how the charter should be amended to reflect mayor/council approval over the transit authority’s budgets, set qualifications and approve actual amendments for 2016;
  • #94 would allow HART to use other funds the Council may authorize for funding rail and would remove the operating budget from the Charter (and therefore the approval requirement by the Council); and
  • #95 would allow HART to issue any kind of bonds.

Based on what I’ve seen at HART and Council meetings, it would not be a good idea to remove the operating budget from the Charter nor allow HART to issue any kind of bonds without approval from the Council. Proposal 93 would potentially give too much control to a new transit authority.

Remaining proposals for Friday include:

  • #13 would require HART members to have certain experience and knowledge and ride rail once per week on average;
  • #45 would set a due date of not less than 120 days prior to the end of fiscal year for the mayor to turn the budgets in to the Council: and
  • #140 would create an independent review board to look at 5-, 10-, 15- and 20-year financial projections, especially considering obligations created by the rail project.

Proposal 140 certainly has a lot of merit and could potentially be done via ordinance.

Lastly, let’s take a moment to remember the proposals that the Commission “deferred” back in December.

Three proposals, 71, 139 and 146, would either eliminate HART (and rail) or shorten the rail project. One commissioner stated that the Commission shouldn’t be a “cheap route for referendum” on rail. Another commissioner stated that if voters did support one of the proposals, the city would be in breach of the contract with the Federal Transit Administration.

First of all, it appears very likely we will be in breach of the Full Funding Grant Agreement anyway, because the rail is not coming in on time. Second, voters approved steel-wheel-on-steel rail by a slim margin and allowed the creation of HART, because it was seen as a way to “take politics out” of it. I believe we should have the opportunity to vote on rail again, especially given the misinformation and lack of transparency we have experienced.

The Commission’s meeting will be held at 4:30 p.m. Friday in the Honolulu Hale committee room on the second floor. They will also hold their budget meeting at 3:30 p.m. Agendas and proposals are available at http://www.honoluluchartercommission.org/, and testimony and comments may be submitted to cclcharter@honolulu.gov. Make sure your voice is heard.

Charter Commission Decides to Leave Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund Alone, Will Continue Discussion on Several Other Proposals

Some people were breathing a sigh of relief after yesterday’s Honolulu City Charter Commission meeting. The commissioners decided to defer Proposal 17, which would have repealed the Affordable Housing Fund, Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund, and Grants in Aid Fund as well as returned authorization for special fund creation back to the mayor with council approval. (Currently the council and mayor have the authority to create funds.)

In 2012 I opposed the resolution that set up the Grants in Aid Fund as a ballot question, and I continue to oppose the fund. It sets aside .5% of general fund revenue annually to be given away to certain nonprofit organizations. This fund has become a political candy pot for the council and was poorly implemented. In addition, we spend about $100 million on social equity programs every year. Mandates like this are simply bad fiscal policy.

Discussion on these specific funds expended to include creation of funds in general. Commissioners asked for clarification of the interpretation of wording in the charter before the last change was made in 2012. While fund creation may sound innocuous, we only need to look at the state to see how things can get out of hand.

The commission also discussed proposals related to the legislative branch, elections, terms of office and corporation counsel. One idea the commission seemed intrigued with was establishing council districts aligned with the six traditional moku, i.e., Kona, Ewa, Waianae, Waialua, Koolauloa and Koolaupoko. The main question related to this is how it would work with the federal law regarding one person one vote. (One person, one vote is why current political districts are based on population.)

Four proposals related to term limits were discussed. The commission is considering increasing the total number of years for mayor, city councilmembers and prosecuting attorney to a total of 12 years. Neighborhood board members currently have no term limit but would be included in the 12 year limit. The thought behind this is that there’s a steep learning curve, and it’s important to have experienced people and continuity in these positions. One point that was made clear with respect to increasing term limits is that it would not apply to current office holders.

The other major area discussed had to do with the Corporation Counsel. Proposals suggested that the office of corporation counsel and the prosecuting attorney be merged, corporation counsel be an elected position and a couple that would give city council the power to fire corporation counsel. Proposal #79 would require Board of Water Supply and HART contracts be approved by corporation counsel. This particular proposal went to the style committee and will likely be on the ballot. (The BWS and HART already submit contracts to corporation counsel for review.)

Several proposals will be researched further by various commissioners and brought up again, including #69 regarding runoffs for special elections.

The commission will meet again Thursday, February 4, and will cover city power, the mayor’s office, city departments under the managing director, planning and two proposals related to the fire department.

Here’s an updated list of Meeting topics to be covered at future meetings.