The Honolulu Charter Commission might ask Oahu voters to consider eliminating neighborhood boards, using the money saved to fund other means of increasing civic participation.
A subcommittee tasked by the commission to look into open-government proposals released a report May 16 that calls for the Neighborhood Commission to develop a strategic plan and timeline for “restructuring the delivery of information to community members through implementation of current communications technologies,” and subsequently to “sunset the neighborhood board system.”
The report calls for the Neighborhood Commission staff to come up with the plan for implementing the directives by March 31.
The proposed Charter amendment calls for continuing the Neighborhood Commission at half its current annual budget to continue as both a resource of public information and to “measure and report citizen participation” in an annual report.
The commission will discuss, and take public testimony, on the proposal at its meeting at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
Commission member Pam Witty-Oakland, who led the subcommittee, said her group looked at the mission and the history of the neighborhood board system, which began in 1973, along with several audits that had been done on it over the years.
“Initially, the mission statement, as it reads on both the website and the Charter, is to increase and ensure active citizen participation in the decisions of government,” Witty-Oakland told her colleagues last week. “And so the neighborhood board system was created to facilitate that.”
But some veteran neighborhood board members criticized the proposal.
Robert Finley, chairman of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, who also serves as vice chairman of the Neighborhood Commission, said the community welcomes the opportunity to interact with elected officials and, where there is a large military presence, military representatives.
“They want to do a one-on-one, face to face,” he said. “Electronically, when you’re looking through a computer screen, the other guy can just click you off if he wants to.”
The Neighborhood Commission oversees 33 boards on Oahu with a staff of 17 and an annual budget of about $931,784, the report said.
Supporters view the boards as a grass-roots level of government that the public can access, while critics say they constitute an unnecessary expense and extra layer of bureaucracy.
The report said the primary mission of the neighborhood board system is “to increase citizen participation in the decisions of government,” and ultimately concludes the idea is obsolete, given the vast growth in electronic media to support citizen participation.
The proposed Charter amendment question lists “television, Internet and email” as the type of electronic communications that should be increased.
The report emphasized that today’s world is vastly different from that of 1972, when neighborhood boards were conceived.
“In 1972, the venues available for citizen participation were limited to physical attendance of City Council meetings,” the report said. “Thus, the support of a system to bring government into one’s neighborhood after the work day provided a practical venue for increasing community participation.”
To testify on a bill or other subject, people had to appear and give oral testimony or submit written testimony either hand-deliv- ered or mailed, the report said.
“In 2016, the venues available for citizen participation include physical attendance, live video broadcast on television and streamed to the Internet,” the report said. “Broadcasts are archived on web sites for citizens to access on computers and smart phones at their own convenience. Re-broadcast of meeting(s) are also aired during prime time.”
Someone wishing to testify today can submit written testimony via fax and email, as well as the more traditional methods of hand-delivery or mail, the report said.
The report also noted that during an initial hearing on the topic of neighborhood boards, there was “commentary on the decreasing attendance and lack of candidates.”
While it’s difficult to chart public attendance at the meetings, evidence points to an uptick in candidates in 2015 from 2013 in the all-electronic elections.
In 2015, 610 people signed up to run for 437 available seats, up from the 468 that vied for seats in 2013. Commission office staff said it was the highest number of candidates in a decade.
The election filled 418 seats because there were no eligible candidates for 19 of the seats. In 2013, 388 seats were filled in the election.
The Neighborhood Commission has, on occasion, needed to seek midterm candidates on a few of the boards in order to fill enough seats to make a quorum.
There were 19,722 ballots cast in 2015, a return rate of 10.1 percent. That was an increase from the 2013 elections when 15,318 ballots were cast, an 8.6 rate of return.
City spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said Mayor Kirk Caldwell appreciates the efforts and commitment of the volunteer neighborhood board members and the staff people who assist them.
“The administration did not propose the Charter proposal and is not taking a position on it,” Broder Van Dyke said. “Although we support the Neighborhood Commission, we welcome a public discussion that can lead to improvements.”
Kathleen Pahinui, chairwoman of the North Shore Neighborhood Board and a board member for more than 15 years, called it a “dumb idea” to propose eliminating neighborhood boards.
Just because access to City Council meetings and the ability to submit testimony have eased does not mean the neighborhood boards should be eliminated, Pahinui said. Many community members who attend neighborhood board meetings wouldn’t go to Council or legislative hearings either because they usually take place during business hours, or are simply reluctant to be part of a formal government proceeding.
“Sometimes people come up and all they want to do is express a concern they have, and that’s it,” Pahinui said. “They don’t know who to go to, they don’t know who to call.”
Often members of the public don’t get satisfactory answers from government agencies or elected officials, and neighborhood board members are in a better position to do that, she said. “If you have a problem with something, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get a hold of the right person. To know that you can go and have somebody representing you and can help you take care of it or point you in the right direction is huge.”
The bureaucratic maze of state and city government might be intimidating to some people, who choose to speak with a neighborhood board member instead about a concern they might have.
“We kind of function like a small-town city hall where everybody knows each other,” she said. There are many hot-button development issues for the North Shore community, and the board provides a forum for people to explain their views, she said.
Long-serving board members, meanwhile, provide crucial institutional memory on issues within their district, and often have a better check on the pulse of their neighborhoods than an area’s elected officials, Finley said.
“Our neighbors have gotten used to having a voice,” he said. “And they’re not all going to march down to City Hall,” he said, noting that it’s a lengthy drive for people in more rural areas.
“I don’t think we’d have the same citizen participation if we got rid of the system,” he said.
To see the report, go to bit.ly/HNLCharterOpenGov16.
The Charter Commission has until Aug. 22 to submit Charter amendment questions for voters to consider in the Nov. 8 general election.