There’s been a lot of talk recently about making some radical changes to the County of Maui’s system of government. Specifically–reducing the elected mayor’s powers (or eliminating the position entirely) in favor of hiring a professional “County Manager.” Because much of the talk about such a change has been both arcane and emotional, and because it won’t be ending any time soon, we set up this primer that will hopefully answer some of your questions.
What would such a system look like?
There are probably more than a hundred such systems in practice throughout the Mainland, but all are basically variations on a single model: that of a municipality hiring an independent, nonpartisan county manager who’s responsible for the day-to-day operations of the various municipal departments. This manager would hire and fire the various department directors, and make sure everything was running efficiently.
Here’s how the League of Arizona Cities and Towns (a voluntary membership organization of a few dozen municipalities) put it in an August 2013 statement: “The system is not perfect, but it is designed specifically to make sure professional municipal employees are responsive to the public and that government resources are spent in the most efficient, objective manner possible, while elected officials set the policy direction and priorities of the city.”
This manager would most likely have an advanced degree in business or political administration, and most likely years of experience in running similarly-sized municipalities on the Mainland. As such, the salary for such a job could be quite substantial, in the mid-six figures (possibly even as high as the $522,000 a year the University of Hawaii was paying former football Coach Norm Chow).
Who would hire this County Manager?
The nine members of the Maui County Council would hire the manager. The job would be “performance-based,” meaning the council would most likely review the job once a year. In that way, the manager would serve at their pleasure, and if found wanting, could be replaced.
Don’t we already have a county manager?
Sort of. The County of Maui currently has a Managing Director. Keith Regan holds that job, but he reports directly to Mayor Alan Arakawa. He also lacks the authority to hire and fire department directors.
Where did this idea come from?
Maui County has had a “strong”–meaning he or she has such powers as hiring and firing department heads and crafting a budget–mayor since 1969, when a charter amendment got rid of the old Board of Supervisors system. That system, in place since the earliest days of the county, gave legislative and management duties to the elected supervisors. It was a nice idea in the old days, but by the 1960s was pretty much unworkable.
Then in 2012, the Maui County Charter Commission recommended that the county establish a “task force” to study local government structures and report its findings. But no one much talked about it until this summer.
On June 28, The Maui News editorialized that “we should study carefully to see if the time is coming for a professional administration” for the county. A month later, on July 19, County Council Chairperson Mike White–who is also probably Arakawa’s most outspoken critic–openly called for county manager form of government. “This form of administration would provide stability in operations and draw professionally qualified department heads and deputies,” he wrote in his own Maui News op-ed. “The county manager would carry out the policies and execute ordinances established by the council.”
From there, other local good government advocates like former Maui Community College professor Dick Mayer and retired attorney Mark Hyde have begun promoting the idea publicly. On Sept. 10, the county’s Cost of Government Commission discussed the issue during its monthly meeting.
What about Councilman Mike Victorino, who’s hinted that he might run for mayor in 2018?
He chaired the Nov. 2 council committee meeting on the issue, and certainly seems to be in favor of studying the issue further. And while he first floated the notion of giving the special advisory committee “a full year to complete its work”–which would most likely have meant that there would still be a mayoral election in 2018, he ultimately agreed to limiting the advisory committee’s work to just 180 days, which makes it at least theoretically possible that a county manager charter amendment would eliminate the need for a 2018 mayoral election.
How popular is this system on the Mainland?
It’s actually quite popular, and has been around in one form or another for about a century. In fact, the National Association of Counties says 81 percent of counties in the U.S. have some form of professional administrator.
So we’d no longer have an elected mayor at all?
Maybe, maybe not. Mike White’s July 19 op-ed even stated that “Maui County could still have a mayor” under a county manager system, “albeit more ceremonial than administrative.” Many smaller cities have dispensed with the elected mayor, and instead rotate a kind of honorary “Mayor” title every year among its city council members. In those cities, the city manager makes all administrative decisions.
Other cities, like Sacramento, California, have what’s known as a “weak mayor.” They have a city manager who runs all the departments (including the police department) but they also have an elected mayor. Since that mayor (in Sacramento’s case, Kevin Johnson) lacks the hiring and firing power over department heads, he’s little more than an elected cheerleader for the city (he’s also incredibly controversial, mostly for a series of accusations that date back nearly a decade that he’s had sex with at least one underage girl).
What are the advantages to a county manager system?
Proponents use words like “efficiency” and “stability” when describing the county manager model, but what they really mean is “non-political.” The whole county manager system is a reform meant to eliminate small town politics–little partisan empires that grow in city hall and hand out important jobs to cronies on the basis of political patronage.
The California City Management Foundation and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA, which recently took on Mike White as a member) says the county manager system “encourages neighborhood input into the political process, diffuses the power of special interests, and eliminates partisan politics from municipal hiring, firing, and contracting decisions.”
Are things so bad in Maui County that we would need such a radical change in our local government?
That’s a matter of judgment. Proponents of the county manager system point to a laundry list of issues that they say wouldn’t happen under a professional administrator: late General Plan update; outdated Community Plans; the county’s repeated injection of sewage into the ground in West Maui, which a federal judge ruled was in defiance of the Clean Water Act; and the generally poor relationship between Mayor Arakawa and the County Council.
To those, I would add the 2014 resignation of Parks Department Director Glenn Correa following a Maui PD investigation into county workers playing golf at the county’s Waiehu course on county time; the luxurious kitchen installed at the Wailuku baseyard that’s also apparently now the subject of a Maui PD investigation; the appointment of Ben Acob (by former Mayor Charmaine Tavares) to be Maui’s Prosecuting Attorney–a move that led to chaos and discord through the Prosecuting Attorney’s office; Arakawa’s announcement in 2013 that the county would no longer run recycling centers, which he quickly reversed after public opposition flared up; and Arakawa’s appointment of former Monsanto lobbyist Carol Reimann to head the Housing and Human Concerns, despite her lack of human concerns and management experience.
Some of these events are obviously worse than others, but all occurred because of a decision from the Mayor’s office. Whether a professional, unelected county manager would have made different choices is debatable, but examples like these certainly don’t help those who want to preserve the status quo.
If implemented here, would a County Manager be responsible for hiring and firing the Maui Police Chief and the Director of Liquor Control?
Those are run differently than other county departments, and have separate commissions that oversee their budgets and leadership. Including them under the purview of a new county manager would likely involve additional charter amendments.
What are the flaws in the county manager system?
Most notably, that it pulls the levers of accountability even further away from the public. If people don’t like the way Mayor Arakawa (or any mayor) is operating, they can vote against him or her every four years. In 2014, Arakawa ran for reelection, and won overwhelmingly, which would seem to indicate that most people on Maui are generally happy with how he’s running things.
There’s also a concern that city or county councils will simply shirk their oversight responsibilities and let their appointed city manager do whatever he or she wants. Checks and balances are a key factor in American politics, but often municipal administrators find that it’s easiest to just work to please a majority of whatever city council or county board appointed them.
Are there any specific examples where a city council didn’t do proper oversight of their city manager?
Sure. In 2013, the San Joaquin County Grand Jury found that the laxed behavior of the Stockton City Council led to that city’s municipal bankruptcy. “According to the report released Thursday, the San Joaquin County Grand Jury found ‘evidence of inadequate information presented to the City Council by a former city manager; lack of project oversight; unilateral control and manipulation of projects by a former city manager without City Council knowledge or approval; poor accounting of the various transactions involving the Events Center; lack of reliable information between city staff and the City Council; and, a financial system that is inadequate for the accounting needed,’” Fox 40 News reported on May 13, 2013.
In 2014, the City Council of Glendale, Arizona came under fire for not scrutinizing its management staff as it handed out big money contracts. “Glendale has spent millions of dollars on private contracts that didn’t always go to public bid and didn’t receive City Council oversight,” the Arizona Republic reported on April 7, 2014. “The lack of oversight on outside spending persisted even as Glendale’s elected leaders raised taxes and continued to cut spending to overcome deep budget deficits.”
And this year, the California State Controller’s office issued a blistering report on the City of West Covina’s accounting and administrative controls. “We found the City’s administrative and internal accounting control deficiencies to be serious and pervasive; in effect, controls were nonexistent,” stated the July 2015 report. “We also found a serious lack of oversight by the City Council over the City’s financial and operational activities.”
Just to be clear, all three of those cities have city managers.
Ok. So if this is going to happen, when will it happen?
That’s hard to say. On Nov. 20, the Maui County Council is scheduled to approve the membership of an advisory committee tasked with looking into the system, and then they can start work after that. The Council’s giving them 180 days before they have to report their findings, and assuming they get to work shortly after Nov. 20, that should leave enough time to get something on the November 2016 ballot–assuming they view a county manager proposal favorably.
Six council members would have to vote to put the measure on the ballot. But even a ballot measure that eliminates the elected mayor position wouldn’t unelect Alan Arakawa, so if it passes it most likely would go into effect in 2018.
Who’s on the advisory committee?
Nine members of the public make up the committee itself: Jonathan Starr, a member of the state Water Commission and the Maui Redevelopment Agency; Renee-May “Kehau” Filimoeatu, a Maui PD dispatch supervisor and former Maui Island General Plan Advisory Committee member; Kay Okamoto, a Lanai realtor and former teacher and librarian; James “Kimo” Haynes III, the president of Maui Petroleum; Paula Friel, a teacher on Molokai; Ray Phillips, a South Maui land developer; Doreen “Pua” Canto, the Kula Community Association president; Tony Takitani, a Wailuku attorney and former state representative; and Tamara Paltin, the Save Honolua Coalition president and 2014 mayoral candidate. The last choice was somewhat curious–given the fact that she ran against Arakawa–but Councilmember Elle Cochran insisted on her.
There are also two at-large members: Realtors Association of Maui government affairs director (and former Arakawa aide) Dave DeLeon and Madge Schaefer, a member of the Maui Meadows Neighborhood Association and former member of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
How independent is the committee?
Pretty independent. There was some discussion of putting one or more members of the Maui County Council itself on the panel, but the council ultimately rejected that.
What does Mayor Arakawa think about all this?
As you might have guessed, he’s against it. He spoke out against it at the Sept. 10 Cost of Government Commission meeting. According to the meeting minutes, his remarks were quite acerbic.
“Mayor Arakawa testified in favor of maintaining the current Mayor-Council structure of government,” states the minutes. “He added that the body that appoints the manager also needs to be of the highest caliber to make its evaluation, and the County Council is not the correct group to do so. He stated that none of the Council members have expertise in management, and there is no requirement that they have such experience when they are elected.” According to the minutes, Arakawa continued to hammer on the County Council, saying that they “do not know how to manage the government system, and do not know how to deal with government-related entities such as the unions, state legislature, and federal government. He also stated that most Council members have not been to County facilities, so they do not understand the underpinnings of how government works.” Arakawa also said Maui County–with its distinctly different regions and islands–is not like Mainland cities and counties. He also speculated that the salary of professional manager would be “upwards of $750,000.”
Ouch! Is he right?
His projected salary figure seems excessively high, but it is likely that any Maui County Manager would get paid substantially more than the $135,000 or so Arakawa gets every year. And Arakawa is certainly right that legislative work doesn’t require management experience, which is why I saw so many city councils in California do so little oversight of their city managers.
Who else opposes this?
Maui County Councilmember Riki Hokama doesn’t seem to happy about the notion. In fact, on Nov. 2, during a Maui County Council Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee meeting on the issue, Hokama spoke plainly about why he loves the status quo. “I continue to support an elected position at the top,” he said, according to the Nov. 3 Maui News. “I’d rather deal with an elected mayor I can boot out in four years. There is nothing wrong with being political.”
Current Managing Director Keith Regan (who’s also running the Maui County Council seat representing Wailuku in 2016) has also gone on record opposing a county manager, but his remarks probably won’t be much help to opponents of changing our government system.
Why is that?
Because Regan wholeheartedly subscribes to the notion that, in the mayor’s office, electoral politics trump everything. “[O]ur primary goal above all else is to get the mayor re-elected,” he told then-Maui Film Commissioner Harry Donenfeld on Mar. 5, 2013, according to a recording Donenfeld made of the conversation. “Nothing else really matters because if the mayor is not re-elected none of us have jobs. Let’s be very frank. We’re all political. We’re very connected to the mayor. If he loses, we lose, our families lose, those who depend on us lose.” Later in that same conversation, Regan told Donenfeld, “I’ve had the mayor tell me, straight to my face, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about me.’ He’s told me that in private. I respect that because he’s right.”
This view, that the primary duty of those working in the mayor’s office is to the mayor him or herself above all else, exemplify why there’s a movement to bring on a professional county manager.
Cover design: Darris Hurst