Maui residents determined to stay engaged in their local government during the COVID-19 shutdown have been rewarded with intimate glimpses of their representatives they wouldn’t get from a normal public meeting.
“You can see the inside of people’s homes in the background,” said Maui County Councilwoman Yuki Lei Sugimura. “Sometimes you can hear the roosters crowing outside.”
During Tuesday’s meeting of the Council’s Economic Development and Budget Committee, which was open to the public via the BlueJeans videoconferencing app, “virtual” attendees were able to submit testimony and sit in on the proceedings. Those who tuned in saw Council members and auditors from N&K CPAs participating from the comfort of their home offices, from committee Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez of Molokai moderating the discussion before an unadorned pale wall to Councilwoman Tamara Paltin of West Maui seeking clarification of key points with a bright red-and-yellow “Ku Kiai Mauna” banner behind her.
Audit principal Dwayne Takeno’s disembodied head floated at the bottom of his feed for an hour before Rawlins-Fernandez gently asked him to adjust his camera.
Such has been the state of public affairs as Maui’s political leaders try to maintain the essential functions of government while also abiding by adopted guidelines for social distancing, the statewide stay-at-home/work-from-home mandate and evolving recommendations from federal, state and county authorities.
While meetings of the full Council and select key committees continue to be held remotely, many other county meetings have been scratched from the calendar.
Among the bodies that have canceled regularly scheduled meetings due to coronavirus concerns and social distancing recommendations are the Liquor Control Adjudication Board, Cultural Resources Commission, Cost of Government Commission, Business Development Focus Group, Urban Design Review Board and each of the Maui, Molokai and Lanai planning commissions.
Those that continue to meet are relying on distance-bridging technologies like BlueJeans and Zoom, established social media platforms like Facebook, and other means to connect and to provide a measure of transparency and public access.
On March 25, Mayor Michael Victorino announced his proposed $869.8 budget via an address that was carried on public-access media outlet Akaku (on which he also hosts a weekly discussion) and the county’s Facebook page.
Council Economic Development and Budget Committee meetings, like the one on Tuesday, will continue to be convened via teleconferencing with public access (including oral testimony) via BlueJeans (meeting code 597785199). All meetings are also broadcast live on Akaku Channel 53 and mauicounty.us. Written testimony may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUNSHINE LAW SUSPENDED
The COVID-19 shutdowns come at a critical time for the budget committee, which has until June 10 to complete a budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people, the mandate to stay at home except for essential activities, and the imperative to keep a 6-foot distance from others means the committee’s usual ability to consult and receive input from constituents through face-to-face interactions is impossible — a serious change to a process that traditionally elicits considerable public interaction. The current plan is for all committee work and public engagement to be performed remotely.
Such streamlining would not have been possible under Hawaii laws guaranteeing public access and participation. But on March 16, the same day the House and Senate voted unanimously to indefinitely suspend this year’s state Legislature, Gov. David Ige signed off on a supplemental emergency proclamation enabling public agencies to conduct business in person or through remote technology without the necessity of public meetings.
The provision reads, in part, “Boards shall consider reasonable measures to allow public participation consistent with social distancing practices, such as providing notice of meetings, allowing submission of written testimony on agendized items, live streaming meetings, and posting minutes of meetings online. No board deliberation or action shall be invalid, however, if such measures are not taken.”
Ige said the provisions of the state’s Sunshine Law, which assure public access to government decision-making, were “just not workable” given the measures necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“All reasonable measures will be taken to ensure public participation that is consistent with the recommendations of social distancing practice as advised by the CDC,” Ige said during a news conference that day.
The supplemental proclamation also suspended the Uniform Information Practices Act, which mandates that all government records be open for public inspection unless specifically exempted. No reason was given for the suspension.
“There’s no way we could do this if the Sunshine Law wasn’t relaxed,” said Sugimura, who holds the Upcountry residency seat on the Council. “If the public was required to have access to a meeting place, they would have had to have been allowed to come to our homes, since we’re working from home. That wouldn’t work, of course.”
Sugimura said she and her fellow committee members are making the most of available technologies to make good on their charge.
“We still have work to do, and any way we can complete it, we will,” she said.
NEW TOOLS FOR PARTICIPATION
The ongoing budget committee meetings have required a significant initial investment in time and planning but appear to be working well, according to Chairwoman Rawlins-Fernandez.
“There has been a definite learning curve and a process to get it going to where it is today,” she said. “So far the Council members have been willing and patient and understanding in getting to this point.”
Rawlins-Fernandez chaired the meeting from the Council’s Molokai District Office while staffers tracked sign-ins on a GoogleDoc to ensure testimonies were fielded in the order that people joined the meeting. Only a handful of people offered phone or video testimony on the first two days of meetings. That will likely increase dramatically over the next month as the committee covers grants and other high-interest topics.
Still, Rawlins-Fernandez readily acknowledges much has been sacrificed in the move to remote access.
April is typically when the committee hits the road for public meetings in West and South Maui, Hana, Paia and Upcountry Maui and on Lanai and Molokai. The meetings are usually scheduled in the evening so those who work in the day have a chance to attend.
“I held off as long as I could before canceling the district board meetings because they are so important to our communities,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. “This is the one time they get to speak face to face with Council members.”
The move, however necessary, prompted Rawlins-Fernandez to insist on allowing community members to testify via phone or video rather than in written form only, as other committees have stipulated.
Rawlins, who ran for office on a platform that included using technology to provide greater public access to government, said technologies adopted during the COVID-19 shutdown could enhance government function when things return to normal.
“If one good thing comes from all of this, it’s adopting new tools and new systems for encouraging and enabling public participation,” she said.
THE PLANNING MUST GO ON
Michele McLean, director of the county Department of Planning, also has been busy preparing to move meetings online for the seven boards and commissions that operate under the auspices of her department.
Under current plans, each of the bodies will conduct at least one meeting via videoconference in April as a trial run for the next round of scheduled meetings.
“They’ll post an agenda, there will be a call to order and we’ll have staff act as testifiers and loop them in,” she said. “If there are displays, we’ll load them. This will be a trial to work out any kinks. If things are not back to normal in May, we’ll conduct business this way.”
McLean said the canceling of meetings has a direct effect of those applying for permits, an inconvenience she hopes to avoid should COVID-19 restrictions continue through the coming months.
The remote meetings are likely adequate for matters of routine business, McLean said. However, discussion of items of significant interest, such as a proposal to freeze the number of short-term rental permits, might best be delayed until it is safe to convene in person due to the amount of public interest they are likely to attract.
“The governor’s proclamation allows us not to have to follow a lot of the Sunshine Law, but we are trying to invoke a lot of that,” McLean said.
There are still challenges to overcome. McLean is looking for open venues on Lanai and Molokai to accommodate Planning Commission members who do not have home computers. Similarly, the West Maui Community Plan Advisory Committee, which has just one meeting left, needs to find an open facility where two members who do not have computers at home can be brought online to participate.