HILO — Council terms could be extended from two to four years under a ballot measure advanced by the Charter Commission last week, but under another measure, council members could be docked a month’s pay if they don’t show up.
The commission, by a 6-3 vote Friday, passed the longer council terms on first reading, sending the measure, Amendment 8, to a public hearing next month before the commission takes it up on a second and final hearing.
The successful measures also go to the County Council, which can’t veto or change the amendments, but can offer alternatives to be placed on the ballot along with the Charter Commission measures.
Measures that pass will go on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot.
Hawaii County Council members currently are limited to four two-year terms before they have to sit out at least a term. The charter amendment would change that to two four-year terms.
Voters adopted the eight-year limit in 1996. They rejected longer council terms in 1998.
Proponents said the learning curve for being a council member is so great, it takes the first two years just to get a good grasp of the issues. Council members are just getting their feet on the ground when it’s time to go out and campaign, they said.
“They’ve just come to the point of achieving the grasp they need to become effective,” said Commissioner William Carthage Bergin, who voted in favor. “If we want people to be interested in becoming politically active to move our county forward, that’s something we could do.”
Opponents pointed out that members of the state and U.S. House have two-year terms. Council members may be more responsive to their constituents and the requirements of their districts if they know they’ll soon be up for re-election, opponents said.
“Everybody says it’s horrible to have to go out there and they have to spend time out there in the community campaigning,” said Commissioner Kevin Hopkins, who voted no. “That campaigning is important — it might be the only time they go out into the community. … The rest of the time they never show up.”
Commissioner Sarah Rice, who sponsored the amendment, questioned the lack of confidence in elected officials.
“It’s an extremely pessimistic way to view our friends and neighbors who agreed to serve their constituents on the island,” Rice said.
Hawaii’s four counties handle council terms differently. Only Kauai has the same setup as Hawaii County, with four consecutive two-year terms. Honolulu council members can serve two consecutive four-year terms; Maui council members can serve five consecutive two-year terms.
Another potential amendment, forwarded Friday to a first reading on an 8-1 vote, adds disciplinary actions for County Council members.
Current council rules allow the council to censure members for repeated absences, but Charter Commissioner Bobby Jean Leithead Todd’s amendment would add teeth to it.
Amendment 12 would let the council, by a two-thirds vote, suspend a colleague without pay for no more than one month if the council member who misses three council meetings without being excused or behaves in a disorderly or contemptuous manner.
Honolulu and Kauai have similar measures in their charter.
“It doesn’t remove any council member from office,” Leithead Todd said. “It doesn’t prevent them from doing their job.”
Former Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter asked the commission last year to consider the issue, after former Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles declined to vote on or sponsor legislative actions because of her concerns about committing war crimes against the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Ruggles missed three months of meetings while continuing to collect her $70,000 annual pay.
Charter Commissioner Christopher Roehrig, the sole no vote, questioned whether the council member would have his or her due process rights violated if pay was suspended in this manner.
“I don’t think you should make laws based on one incident,” Roehrig added. “That’s wrong.”