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Timing of Election Charter Amendment Questioned

April 5, 2012, 3:47 PM HST
* Updated April 5, 4:50 PM
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If you went to the voting booth and one of the ballot questions was a reversal of the law that allowed one of the candidates to run, would that reflect poorly on that candidate?

That was the dilemma council members wrestled with Wednesday.

The issue was a proposed County Charter amendment that would prevent members of the county Redistricting Commission from running for the council for at least one election cycle.

The job of the commission created with volunteer members each decade is to decide where the boundaries for the Big Island’s nine council districts should be drawn. Currently, the commission’s members are not prohibited from running for office in the new districts they helped create.

That’s different from the state’s Reapportionment Commission which draws up the political maps for seats in the state Legislature and US Congress. Members of that body are banned from running for those offices for four years.

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New political maps are required from both commissions to reflect changes in population during the preceding 10 years by keeping an equivalent number of residents in each district.

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The charter amendment was proposed by Kohala Councilman Pete Hoffman after it was found that the charter provision was different than state law. That wasn’t discovered until two members of the Redistricting Commission announced – well after the commission had completed its work in November – that they would run for council seats.

Hoffman, who is prevented by term limits from running for re-election, said his amendment was aimed at removing the possible perception of a conflict of interest that new lines had been drawn to favor a particular candidate, in this case a member of the commission itself.

On Wednesday, council members took the first of three required votes to have the proposed charter amendment placed on the November ballot. It narrowly passed.

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The amendment appeared to be sailing smoothly toward approval until community activist Tim Rees, a frequent council observer, pointed out during pre-vote testimony that putting the issue on the ballot in the same election during which the former commissioners were running might give the impression that the candidates were doing something wrong.

“This can be seen to besmirch their character,” Rees said. “There is an inference this is wrong.”

He suggested that the ballot should be made as neutral as possible, and “shouldn’t be formatted in any way to support or denigrate candidates.”

“It’s a timing issue,” Rees said. “There’s nothing wrong with the bill itself.”

He said that having the amendment eventually is a “no-brainer,” but suggested that since the issue won’t arise for another 10 years, when the next Redistricting Commission is created, there’s plenty of time to put it on the ballot in a future election.

Several council members said Rees’ observation gave them pause.

Hilo Councilman J Yoshimoto said that up until that point he had seen the matter simply as a housekeeping issue, but now could see where Hoffman’s effort could have “unintended consequences.”

“The question of timing didn’t really hit home until today,” he said. “The question for me is if it’s appropriate to do it now.”

Donald Ikeda, another Hilo councilman who has announced his candidacy for the state Senate, confessed that he had planned to vote yes but had become torn about the issue.

“Tim, you kind of threw a wrench into this,” he said. “I’m not running but I do support the people running and I want to give them a fair chance.”

Virtually every council member, including Hoffman, stressed that the amendment was not aimed at the two former commissioners, but at bringing county policy in line with that of the state.

Yoshimoto noted that during previous committee discussions he had stated that no one is questioning the integrity of the commissioner candidates.

The two commissioners-turned-candidates are Dru Kanuha, who is running in District 7 in Kona and Valerie Poindexter, who is a candidate in District 1 in Hamakua.

Poindexter today told Big Island Now that she would prefer that the council wait until a future election.

“Why do they have to rush?” she said. “They’re not going to draw up new boundaries for 10 years.”

Poindexter said she thinks the council should take the time to further assess public sentiment about the amendment. However, she said she is not concerned that its appearance on the November ballot might taint her candidacy.

“I have a lot of faith in the people,” she said. “If they perceive that I did something wrong they have every right to vote for someone else.”

Because the bill is a charter amendment, approval requires a two-thirds vote, unlike the simple majority required for regular ordinances. And with Puna Councilman Fred Blas absent from the proceedings, that prompted further discussion and lobbying for its passage.

Several members argued that the issue should be put on the ballot immediately, saying that they didn’t want to leave the matter to chance.

“We can’t assume a future council will empower the people,” said Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford.

Council members for a time discussed the idea of issuing a press release clarifying the matter but eventually decided against that.

The final vote was 6-2 in favor of putting the issue on the next ballot, with Ikeda and Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, another Hilo councilman, voting against the move.

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