By VALERIE MONSON
WAILUKU — The voters were given a better chance at wielding some power of their own by the Maui County Council on Friday.
In a marathon meeting that ended more than 12 hours after it started, lawmakers gave first-reading approval to a charter amendment that would make it less cumbersome for a group of citizens to propose a new law and get it on the ballot.
“This will empower the people,” said Council Member Charmaine Tavares in an interview after the tiring session. “I think this (will) help to restore faith in government by the Maui public, especially in light of what’s happened recently nationwide, even down to the state and county levels.”
The amendment to the County Charter — allowing for what is known as “initiative” to those familiar with government lingo — was one of three to pass the first hurdle at the council level. The suggested changes must be adopted on second reading scheduled for Aug. 20 to be placed on the general election ballot on Nov. 5.
Other proposed amendments, which dealt with ethical issues and underlined the ability of county officers or employees to testify before boards and commissions, failed. A controversial recommendation that would have transferred the final authority of granting shoreline permits from the planning commissions to the council was withdrawn by Tavares.
In addition to initiative, proposed charter revisions that passed muster included one that would give council members the ability to appoint volunteers to boards and commissions when the mayor misses his deadline and another that will enable them to request information from county departments or agencies without the need to go through the mayor.
The most anticipated roll call, however, came on initiative, a proposal applauded by the general community but opposed just as staunchly by major landowners and business interests.
The current charter requires a citizens group proposing an initiative to get signatures of 20 percent of all registered voters in the last general election within a 30-day period. Based on the 73,331 registered voters in the 2000 election, that would mean gathering 14,666 voter signatures in a month.
The amendment, introduced by Councilman Wayne Nishiki, asked that the number of signatures be reduced to 10 percent of the number of people who actually voted in the last mayoral election, while lengthening the time limit to 21 months. With 43,382 voting in the last mayoral election, that would require 4,338 signatures with more time to circulate the petitions.
Opponents criticized Nishiki’s amendment as making it to easy.
After hours of wrangling Thursday, Nishiki agreed to a compromise that would require getting 20 percent of the voters to sign within 180 days.
Gary Elster, director of the Kihei Community Association, said his group unanimously supported the motion “to make it more democratic in this county.”
A proposal for a charter amendment from the council requires approval by two-thirds of the nine-member body, or six votes.
Council Member Riki Hokama had indicated that he didn’t feel comfortable backing many of his colleagues’ proposed amendments because he “had faith” in the revisions already hashed out over the last year by the Charter Commission. Mike Molina thought that the current system for initiative hadn’t been tested so “instead of changing it, I’d rather see if there’s a problem with it first.”
Robert Carroll had said that he thought the public had not been given ample opportunity to comment on the council’s proposals. But he relented when the matter came up for action, joining the council’s newest member, Danny Mateo, along with Alan Arakawa, Jo Anne Johnson, Nishiki and Tavares in voting to put the issue on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Carroll said he was swayed because he thought the number of names and the length of time would give the matter sufficient scrutiny and debate.
“I think that’s very close to what would come out if we went through public hearings,” he said.
He also said that, because a change in the initiative process barely lost when it was put before voters in 1992, it deserved another chance. The last proposal came within 2,000 votes of passing, losing by 15,623 to 13,825.
“We know there’s been a lot of support for this,” said Carroll. “I think the people of Maui County should get to decide again, especially with the history.”
“If the public gets serious about an issue, this is a reasonable way to do it,” she said.
Tavares also said that, even though she was pulling back her amendment to take away coastal zone decisions from the planning commissions, she plans to push for discussion on the issues around granting of special management area permits for shoreline developments.