District voting system issue will go before charter panel

The Maui News
July 16, 2010


WAILUKU - Maui County Council Committee of the Whole members on Thursday decided it's too early in the process to ask voters in November to decide whether to put into place a more localized system of electing county officials.

District voting is where people vote only for one candidate for County Council, someone who lives within blocks or a few miles of them. Honolulu has district voting. Maui voters can cast ballots in all nine council races.

Instead of a ballot initiative that could have dismantled the at-large residency seat voting system, council members unanimously sent the matter off to the Charter Commission. However, the mayor won't appoint Charter Commission members until next year, and they won't have a meeting until spring 2011. Their final report is due by summer 2012.

Several groups have been petitioning to change the system for more than a year. Council Member Jo Ann Johnson forwarded a West Maui proposal for district voting. She said many voters feel disenfranchised by the less-intimate current system.

"I believe that with an issue as important as this we must give it to the Charter Commission," said Council Member Wayne Nishiki, who complained about initiative supporters who did not attend the meeting.

Council Members Gladys Baisa, Sol Kaho'ohalahala, Mike Victorino and Joe Pontanilla were absent or excused from the vote. Baisa, in particular, had expressed support for district voting.

Nishiki said there are people who might accuse the County Council of stalling, but that referral is a fair and educational process that includes countywide public meetings.

Johnson said people have been discussing district voting for years now. And it's not that complicated to understand, she said.

Nishiki, who holds the South Maui residency seat, is one of several council members in recent years to lose his home precincts but win overall.

Don Couch, the man Nishiki beat in 2008, said, "It's time for the people to decide."

Johnson also acknowledged that it looks like the already elected are trying to preserve a few political careers. At-large candidates are often successful by capturing Central Maui, which has the county's greatest concentration of voters and union members.

She noted that Kaho'ohalahala is scheduled to go to Circuit Court next month because litigants said he was living

in Lahaina when he won his Lanai residency seat. Kaho'ohalahala, who is running for mayor, could be kicked out of his council office. And Kaho'ohalahala had lost the Lanai precinct.

Supporters said dispatching at-large campaigning will make it much easier for fresh faces to enter politics. Campaigning countywide costs thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours and means enlisting a network of volunteers. Sometimes candidates run a few times to build up name recognition to eventually win.

Resident Nell Woods said that "each of us deserves to have not only a candidate who lives in our district, but someone who was elected by his district."

West Maui residency seat candidate Elle Cochran said it would not lead to council member provincialism, as some said. Any responsible council member would make county issues a top priority, she said.

Maui County's low voter turnout comes from people not knowing all the candidates, she added. And a recent poll said 65 percent of respondents want district voting.

"I got to vote for all you guys, and I don't want to lose that right," countered testifier Jim Smith.

Former council candidate Lance Collins said that the current system, dating from 1992, was a compromise.

"Its time has come, and its time has gone," Collins said.

It will be complicated to install district voting through the Charter Commission, Johnson said, adding that the proposal didn't have the six votes it needed to get on the ballot anyway.

In addition to the Charter Commission, the mayor will also have to appoint a County Reapportionment Commission. The Reappointment Commission will determine the new council district boundaries, which by law must have equal populations.

That means that some island and rural regions could no longer have residency seats completely to themselves.

However, some testifiers complained that one plan would conjoin communities, such as combining Lanai and Lahaina.

"If Lanai is lost when it's grouped with a small community like Lahaina, imagine how lost it is now when it's lumped in with all of Maui County?" said Maui Chamber of Commerce President Pamela Tumpap.

* Chris Hamilton can be reached at chamilton@mauinews.com.

* This article includes a correction from the original published on Friday, July 16, 2010.

Testifier Nell Woods did not discuss the subject of how a more localized election process would effect the influence of campaign contributions on candidates. The story incorrectly attributed comments about the subject to her. The Maui News apologizes for the error.


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