With less than two weeks left in power and the clock ticking for the current Maui County Council, Council Chair Mike White is still angling for Hail Mary passes to take a number of controversial bills to the endzone. After last week’s marathon two-day council meeting which included a full day of public testimony, hotly contested bills dictating the momentum of the Wailuku Civic Complex and the future of both Pa‘ia-Ha‘iku and Kihei-Makena Community Plans moved forward in bill form for a second and final reading. A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 27 at 9am, the County Clerk’s office told me, with a possibility for a special County Council meeting to be called afterwards for councilmembers to vote on the contentious legislation.
This has caused concern among many in the public that community input will not be adequately considered before decisions are made, and raised questions regarding whether legislation is being rammed through in the twilight of the current lame-duck County Council, before the turnover of five seats and inauguration of the new council (and their new political leanings) come Jan. 2, 2019.
“This is contrary to the intent of a public hearing,” Maui activist Kai Nishiki wrote on Facebook in a widely shared post. “The whole point of a public hearing is so members of the district being affected by proposals will have an opportunity to learn about and testify on them!”
The opportunity to testify and hear public input is limited, she said, if council meetings and public hearings are carried out between Christmas and New Years, when community members are occupied with the holiday season.
One of the bills that will be the subject of the public hearing is the appropriation of an additional $40 million for the Wailuku Civic Complex. The project was appropriated $40 million at the closure of the latest budget session in June. Since then, under the Budget and Finance Committee and its Committee Chair Councilmember Riki Hokama, an additional $40 million appropriation has gained momentum and is poised for a final vote. Hokama has argued that the additional appropriation is necessary to seek the best bids for the project, while other councilmembers including Alika Atay, Elle Cochran, and Kelly King have questioned the need for, cost of, and details regarding the over-$80-million development.
Two other bills that received substantial community testimony last week were proposed amendments to Pa‘ia-Ha‘iku and Kihei-Makena community plans. The amendment to the Pa‘ia-Ha‘iku Community Plan would set a limit of 65 (down from the current 88) “permitted short-term rental homes and owner-occupied bed and breakfast homes that are residential in both scale and character” and deny future applications for properties that abut the shoreline. Transient vacation rentals, which can currently operate up to 12 rooms in the area under conditional use permits, would be included in this permit limit. The bill addresses some of the concerns voiced by the Pa‘ia community regarding the spread of visitor accommodations in town.
The other community plan amendment concerns the land use designation for a property located on Keawekapu Beach at 2980 South Kihei Rd. Currently, the area is zoned “Single-Family,” and the bill would amend this to “Hotel” to match its actual use, given the condition that the hotel currently on the property “shall not increase their current capacity, density, height, or footprint from what is in existence as of the date of this ordinance.”
Much of the skepticism of these community plan amendments is what has been called the “short-circuiting of the community plan process.” The process is long and arduous, and calls the community to organize and determine a path for its future. If changes come from the top, testifiers concluded, it is not respecting the process nor involving the kinds of public input that community plans should.
And, perhaps, that gets to the point of the growing public concern: a fear that decisions are being made at the top without proper care for the community’s input. With the latest council meeting running two days, including an entire day spent on public testimony, I’m left wondering: Who’s got time for that?
Especially this time of the year, when most people are focused on finishing the last bit of work before the new year and celebrating the holidays with family and friends, who has the time (or money) to take a day off and spend a eight hours waiting in queue just for the chance to address elected officials in a public forum?
The other issue at hand is the propriety of the lame-duck council’s push for bills in the final days of their term. Last election, Maui County made the choice to elect a majority of candidates that were selected by the Sustainable Action Fund for the Environment for their commitment to the environment and skepticism of development. With five of the nine new council seats belonging to what has been named the ‘Ohana Coalition, the ideological balance of the council is set to shift from the “good ol’ boy” network to candidates with less political experience but high progressive ideals.
Because of this ideological shift, it’s likely that some measures passed this month wouldn’t have a chance next month. “For this reason, the outgoing council should commit to refraining from voting on any substantive policy measures,” attorney Lance D. Collins wrote in a MauiTime Op-Ed last week, echoing the concerns of many in the public that their votes for a different direction for Maui County’s political leadership are being undermined by efforts to ram through legislation.
It’s the deterioration of the political norms, like those that dictate the decision-making mandate to newly elected, that ultimately lead to the degradation of democracy, Collins argued.
I would add that there’s another norm that shouldn’t be breached: Public testimony and hearings should be held at times and places that are convenient for the people of the community, not just when it’s convenient for leadership to force policy through.
Images courtesy County of Maui
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