January 1991 Home   Newsletters

February 1991

March 1991

Charter Review and the Public (Jean Aoki)
Balance of Service (Marilyn Bornhorst)
Viewpoint (Arlene Ellis)
Women at the Peace Table (Ruth W. Iams)
Proposed Budget FY 1991-92
Ala Wai Community and Convention Center (Queen Emma Foundation)
Committee Nominates Slate of Directors for Honolulu League
Action Alert
Guide to Ethics in Municipal Government (W. Edwin Sumner)
Your Opinion Matters
Thank You (Anne Parton)
Membership Column

The Balance of Service

Is it possible our troubles in Honolulu City government are caused by our structure of government rather than the personalities and political ambitions of the participants? If not, why do the troubles persist through change of Mayors and Councilmembers? We have an unusual balance or lack of it in our City Charter. The Mayor and Council sit on opposite ends of the teeter-totter rather than elected representatives and civil servants on opposite ends. I don't know of another city set up quite like ours.

Basically, a city is run by the civil servants. They are there year after year trying to get the streets paved and the grass mowed in the parks. We need City Councillors to control and guide the civil servants so the services the city provides taxpayers is what they want. The engineers in Public Works may want all streets resurfaced on an eight year cycle. Do the taxpayers want to pay that much? Or is ten years good enough? Do we want high rises on our rural beaches? Is our way of deciding working?

Here is how it works in most cities I have studied. The Mayor and Council are elected and sit as one body to make policy for their city or county. The Mayor is usually chosen from among the Council. In some cities she is elected directly by the voters and her degree of separate authority to direct the bureaucracy varies from city to city. In some cities the Mayor and Council together hire department heads and share ultimate control through ability to fire.

During this century in more and more cities the elected officials hire a professionally trained City Manager. The Manager takes his direction from the elected people, and the department heads move the civil servants as much as possible to meet the will of the people as defined by their elected representatives. If the Mayor/Council aren't satisfied, they fire the City Manager, but they don't hire or fire department heads. Department heads aren't part of the political team. They are professionals willing to do the best job for the public.

In Honolulu our Mayor is elected to be the chief executive officer of the City. He is head of the executive branch. The Councilmembers are elected to be the legislative branch. They pass laws, and they pass the budget. That should control, right? Neat division of powers.

How does it work?

For many years the Council, as it passed major rezonings, required the developers to build 10% of the units to be affordable to low moderate income buyers. The Mayor's executive departments didn't enforce the requirement.

The Council set aside certain blocks in Waikiki for residential apartments. The Mayor's appointed attorney interpreted the law to allow hotel use.

The Parks Department draws up elaborate master plans for parks. The one for Kapiolani Park has officially been done and re-done by the Department civil servants and their consultants. The Council has never been asked to officially accept it. So when the Parks people want money to implement it, the Council re-writes it.

Will we ever build a City train system? Aside from whether or not it is a good idea, how can we ever do it while the Mayor and the Council can block and counter each other? They have been doing it since the mid 1960's. Within the next few months several teams wanting to build the system will present their proposals to the City. Will the Mayor choose one and the Council another?

Suppose we change our City Charter to have the Mayor and Council be one body, as is done in most cities. Together they would pass laws. Together they would hire and fire department heads. Together they would determine how much money to spend on what. Together they would decide whether to build a train system. Together they would agree on a parks plan, a street resurfacing program, a housing policy. Together they would execute the plan through the civil service, who would probably be glad to have clear direction.

Or together they would hire a professional City Manager who would direct the civil servants and guide them in the way the public, through their representatives, desires.

We talk about balance. In Federal and State governments we have executive, legislative, and judiciary balancing each other-more or less. I am not sure they always balance, but we survive. In local government, though, it has to balance. You have to pay the fire fighters and direct traffic and prevent flooding. What we need to balance is the elected and the hired public servants.

In election after election, spot changes are adopted to patch up our charter. We made our Prosecuting Attorney elected to remove him from the control of the Mayor, but forgot to give him budget independence from the Mayor. Last year the Charter was changed to allow the Council to confirm hiring all department heads. But control is in ability to fire. A transportation authority was authorized. Will it have to come to Council or the Mayor for guidance? Does it add to effective balance or create a third counterbalance?

This year is the year the Council and the Mayor will appoint a Charter Commission to do a comprehensive review and recommend revisions to the Charter-to be voted on by the electorate in 1992. Now is the citizens' opportunity to try to put our Charter into coherent shape so our government gives us the most for our money. And, of course, that is a job for the League.

Marilyn Bornhorst

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