Council puts brakes on district voting

Charter panel will consider measure for 2012 election

The Maui News
August 7, 2010


WAILUKU - Saying it needs much more public input before action, skeptical County Council members on Friday handed a proposal to change how the council is elected to the 2011 Charter Commission.

Council members are currently elected "at large," meaning they must live in their residency district, but all voters can vote for all council members. The proposal being sent to the Charter Commission would change that system so that council candidates would be elected only by voters in the district they represent. If the commission supports the measure, it would be put to voters in the 2012 General Election.

Advocates say district voting would make it less expensive to run for council, since candidates would only campaign in their districts, not across the entire county as they do under the current system. That could bring fresh blood and new ideas to the council, they say.

Alan Kaufman of the Kula Community Association, which offered one proposal for district voting, said the idea should be put to voters.

"It's a decision that should be decided by the people rather than an elected body," he testified before the council Friday. "People are entitled to make their own decision."

The county's next Charter Commission will be appointed by the mayor and is expected to convene in the spring of 2011 and conclude by summer 2012. The commission will propose a number of changes to the Maui County Charter, which will be put to voters to decide that November.

Council members Jo Anne Johnson, Gladys Baisa and Joe Pontanilla on Friday tried unsuccessfully to bypass the Charter Commission and get district voting placed on the ballot in this election cycle. Under the failed proposal, a Reapportionment Commission would decide the boundaries of the new districts, if they were created.

"Basically people want someone a little closer so they have more of a say, and I think there's validity to that," said Johnson, who with Baisa introduced the measure proposed by their constituents. "I really believe we have to be true to the public."

However, it was the issue of boundaries that worried several of the council members, they said. For instance, under the Kula Community Association's proposal, three districts would be formed with three representatives elected from each one: Central, Leeward and Rural districts.

In order to have an even disbursement of population as required by the law, the Rural District would be made up of East Maui as well as Lanai and Molokai. Council Chairman Danny Mateo, who holds the Molokai residency seat, noted that if this proposal were to pass, it is possible that Molokai - with a population of about 7,500 - and Lanai - with about 3,200 people - could be without representation on the County Council since Maui is more populous.

He felt that would be an unacceptable and unfair scenario.

The issue drew a number of testifiers Friday.

"I get confused in the voter booth," said Dixie Laughrey of Lahaina, who lobbied for the district voting. " I don't know what Molokai needs or Lanai needs, so I let their people decide."

Today's system also makes campaigning too expensive, she said. Laughrey is a volunteer for West Maui residency seat candidate Elle Cochran.

Attorney Lance Collins, who is secretary of the West Maui Charter Working Group that also has proposed district voting, said it commissioned a recent telephone survey of 500 registered voters, and the results indicated that the majority of residents support the charter amendment. On Lanai and Molokai, the numbers are more than 60 percent and about 70 percent, respectively, he said.

But Mateo said he didn't believe that the people surveyed would have supported the measure if they knew district voting could lead to them losing their own elected officials.

Council Member Mike Molina said there is some value in these ideas. But he wants people to have more "time to digest it," and that's why he supported giving the proposals to the Charter Commission for further study, he said.

But Baisa, who holds the Upcountry residency seat, said her constituents have made it very clear to her that they want this on the upcoming ballot in November.

"For me, this is democracy in action," she said.

Baisa also said she's not buying into the idea that you have to be from a place to represent it well.

"Just because I'm not elected from Molokai or Lanai, that doesn't mean I don't care a lot about them, because I do," she said.

* Chris Hamilton can be reached at

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