Open space fund draws most opinion at charter meeting

KAILUA-KONA — The Charter Commission afforded West Hawaii residents a platform Wednesday to make their voices heard on potential amendments to the county’s foundational document.

The collective community echo fell considerably short of booming.

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Just more than a dozen people showed at the West Hawaii Civic Center Council Chambers, and only four offered testimony on 11 charter amendments (CAs) that passed first reading and might appear on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot for referendum.

The majority of testimony was connected by the common thread of the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission, which charter commissioner Doug Adams said extends back through previous public hearings in other Hawaii Island districts.

“(PONC) preservation has been a theme of concern by many testifiers,” he said.

Adams added that CAs dealing with the establishment of a Disaster Emergency Relief Fund and extending the terms of county council members from two years to four years have also been popular topics in public testimony.

But it was PONC that dominated Wednesday’s rather brief conversation, namely CA-9. PONC is funded by 2 percent of county property taxes, or roughly $6 million annually at current tax rates, and CA-9 would allow for money from those coffers to be spent on the cost of staffing the program, which is not currently allowed.

“I think this is huge because right now nobody is managing it, and we have a surplus and we have so many properties that need to be bought before the corporations buy us out of everything,” Cherie Griffore told the commission, referencing that the county has purchased just 14 of 180 proposed land parcels in the last 14 years totaling close to 4,500 acres.

As of late February, the PONC acquisition fund contained nearly $20 million in unspent monies, while the maintenance fund for purchased lands, which picks up more than $500,000 every year, had a balance of almost $3 million.

Anne Harvey, who also testified Wednesday, agreed adding a staff member was the best solution to streamline time consuming, “complex work.”

“Instead of a staff member that is able to work on it as their time permits, being able to have a dedicated staff person allows them to really focus on the work and prioritize it appropriately and get the work done within the timelines,” she testified.

Along with Harvey and Griffore, Susan Dursin advocated for CA-9. She contended a full-time staff person would also help nonprofits overcome the challenge of maintaining lands the county has already bought by way of grant fund procurements.

“There’s nobody taking care of these places so the nonprofits have to step up, and it’s hard work,” Griffore added.

All three women also mentioned CA-18 in testimony. That amendment, in part, would have turned over administration of the PONC fund to the county Department of Finance.

“It has not been a good situation to have Parks and Rec doing it because they have so many other duties,” Dursin testified.

However, CA-18 is not on the list of 11 charter amendments the commission approved on first reading, while CA-9 is. Adams said the commission has considered 27 potential amendments since October.

Scott Susman, a former firefighter and member of the Fire Commission, spoke first Wednesday evening and was the only testifier who didn’t mention the PONC fund. His concern was with CA-6, which would afford the Fire Commission and Police Commission power to discipline the fire chief and police chief, respectively. The Fire Commission already possesses hiring and firing power.

“As it stands, the chief is quite autocratic, denies access vigorously … (and) efforts to look under the hood are classified as interference in the administrative affairs of the department,” Susman told the Charter Commission. “It’s inadequate and gives too much unchecked and unwitnessed power to one person. It’s a formula for problems.”

Commissioners, all of whom are Hawaii Island residents and none of whom hold elected office, were appointed by Mayor Harry Kim and confirmed by the Hawaii County Council last year.

The public hearing in Kona was the fifth of six such public hearings convened by the commission in recent weeks. The final meeting took place Thursday in Hilo.

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After hearings conclude, the commission has until the end of June to submit to the County Council a report replete with recommendations and a draft of proposed charter amendments. The council will then have 30 days to review and return the commission’s proposals along with any alternatives.

One month later, the commission will submit its final draft as well as ballot language for amendments set to appear on the 2020 ballot.

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