Less than two miles. That’s how close Gladys Baisa’s Makawao home was to the border of the Upcountry residency district when she decided to run for Charmaine Tavares’s vacated County Council seat in 2006. But it might as well have been 2,000 miles—under the current rules, a councilmember must reside in the district in which he or she runs. So Baisa rented a home in Kula and in June 2006 she registered to vote in the Upcountry district, according to records obtained from the County Clerk’s office.
What she didn’t do is remove her name from a homeowners’ exemption filed with the County Real Property Tax Division in 1997. The form listed Baisa and her husband, Sherman, and entitled the couple to a standard $300,000 exemption against the value of their home. According to the County municipal code, Baisa had to tell the assessor that she’d moved and no longer qualified for the exemption within 30 days. But she didn’t do so until December 2009—more than three years after she moved to Kula, ran for office and was ultimately elected to the council. Failure to report a change in exemption status is a misdemeanor, and carries a civil penalty of $200, plus payment of taxes owed with interest.
More than that, this would seem to be grounds for a residency and voter registration challenge against Councilmember Baisa, similar to the one that has put Lanai Councilmember Sol Kaho‘ohalahala in the headlines. In October 2009, the Supreme Court ruled against Kaho‘ohalahala on appeal, and set a stringent precedent for voter registration. Citing HRS § 11-13(4), the Court found that “both action and intent on the part of the voter [are required] before a new residence is established,” and that “[t]his necessarily implies a concurrent intent to abandon his or her prior residence, since a person can have only one residence under the statute.”
Reached for comment, Baisa called the matter an “oversight.” As soon as she realized her name should be removed from the form, she said, she notified the Real Property Tax office.
“I’m not looking to break the rules,” she said, “especially in my position.”
In an e-mail, Real Property Tax Administrator Scott Teruya wrote that the County code “affords every owner occupant a home exemption,” and that “whether Gladys removed her name, her husband still remained as an owner occupant and the exemption would still remain at $300,000.” Teruya said the reason couples often put both of their names on the form is to keep the exemption in place should one spouse die.
Baisa confirmed that, while her husband still resides in the Makawao home, she rents a home in Kula. “I’m there every day,” she said. “I am a part of my [district].”
Asked of she’s concerned about a possible residency challenge Baisa responded “not really.” She called the Kaho‘ohalahala case “unfortunate” but added that it’s “Sol’s kuleana.”
Something Baisa was eager to discuss is changing the way the council is elected. “I think it’s a bad system,” she said flatly.
She called being forced to uproot and spend thousands of dollars in rent, all so she could represent the people of Upcountry Maui, “simply unfair.”
“I have complained bitterly about this,” she said. “I am an Upcountry girl. All my life I’ve felt, what is more Upcountry than Makawao? Only to find out my home isn’t in the [Upcountry] district.”
Baisa said she would prefer to be accountable only to the people of her district and expressed frustration at having to move a few miles to run for office, then being forced to run a countywide campaign.
“I know it’s a controversial position,” Baisa said of changing the district and voting structure. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of support. I think people don’t want to upset the apple cart.”
Maui’s current system—nine residency districts, with one councilmember elected from each district by all voters—has been around for about two decades. Former MCC professor Dick Mayer—who serves on the board of the Kula Community Association, which passed a resolution last summer calling on the council to change the election rules—said the system was put in place to give rural outliers like Lanai, Molokai and East Maui representation.
But, Mayer said, the system is designed to skirt the constitutional “one person, one vote” standard and has a few other significant flaws. First, it favors incumbents, because it’s harder for new candidates to gain the name recognition and resources to win in a countywide election. Second, it confuses voters, who often don’t vote in the races outside their district, either because they don’t think they’re allowed to or because they don’t know enough about the other candidates. Finally, Mayer said, the current system may actually keep qualified candidates from running. For example, he said, Lanai has about 3,000 residents while the South Maui area has about 25,000, but each gets one councilmember. “It creates an imbalance,” he said. “You have a small pool of people to pick from in Lanai, Molokai and East Maui, and you may be losing some brain power and ability from places like Upcountry, Central Maui and South Maui.”
And, added Mayer, candidates “frequently lose their district but win [the election] anyway” because of countywide popularity. Ironically, Mayer said, the places this tends to happen most frequently are the rural districts.
In the end, Mayer said, “We want to make sure we aren’t losing good [councilmembers] because of the way we elect people.”
Mayer outlined three alternative systems: three districts based on current state Senate districts, with three councilmembers elected from each; six districts based on current state House districts, with one candidate elected from each and three additional candidates elected at-large; or nine redrawn residency districts that would do away with the countywide vote.
Mayer said the advantage of the second option is that candidates can run at the district level and avoid campaigning islandwide, but the three at-large slots would allow politicians with higher aspirations, like the Mayor’s office, to gain broader name recognition and experience in a countywide election.
Mayer said the Council could create a Charter Amendment and put the issue on the ballot, but he doubts that will happen because “existing councilmembers [don’t] want to change the way they’re elected.” A better opportunity, Mayer said, is when the Charter Commission convenes, likely some time next year.
Of course, as long as the current rules are in place, candidates must abide by them. But past and present residency challenges and discrepancies like Baisa’s show that the system—which forces politicians to put on a show of changing address rather than confronting the more fundamental question of whether they’re qualified to serve on the council—may be the root of the problem.