Monday, July 19, 1999

City & County of Honolulu

Visioning teams
need openness,
many say

Unlike neighborhood boards,
Mayor Harris' teams do not
operate under the Sunshine Law

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


On a sunny Saturday morning last September, several thousand people took in the Hawaii Convention Center and listened as Mayor Jeremy Harris urged them to help create "a shared vision" for Oahu in the 21st century.

Out of that meeting sprang 19 community visioning groups that were promised -- and then given by the City Council -- $2 million to spend on various capital improvement projects as they saw fit.

But there is growing worry by some neighborhood board and City Council members that the visioning teams -- established for at least two years -- have been given too much authority without accountability.

Some ask if Harris is bypassing the unpredictable and sometimes volatile neighborhood board system.

Last week:

Bullet The Neighborhood Commission, which oversees the city's neighborhood boards, told Executive Director Ben Kama to seek clarification from the mayor on the roles and duties of the visioning teams.
Bullet Councilwoman Donna Mercado Kim introduced a resolution urging the Harris administration to have the groups follow state Sunshine Laws pertaining to opening meetings.

New layer of bureaucracy?

Some neighborhood board leaders say much of what the visioning teams do mirrors what they've done for years -- minus the benefit of the $2 million.

"I understand the mayor is trying to enhance participation in city government," said Waianae Board Chairwoman Cynthia Rezentes. "But it appears that with some neighborhoods and communities, there's duplication, or a second layer of government."

Both neighborhood boards and the visioning teams have been asked to recommend priority projects in their areas, she said, "but the neighborhood boards don't have a $2 million bogey."

Mary Ann Miyashiro, chairwoman of the Ewa Neighborhood Board, said: "This casts a bad light on the neighborhood boards. Why is one group supposedly sanctioned by the mayor told there are no funds when another group sanctioned by the mayor is told there are funds?"

Harris is sidestepping the boards that are elected, have legal standing and are subject to state Sunshine Laws pertaining to open meetings, said Lynne Matusow, chairwoman of the Downtown Neighborhood Board.

"If he wants to ignore the boards, why doesn't he just come out and say it and go get the City Charter changed?" she said. "If not, why isn't he paying primary proper attention to the boards?"

But Carol Costa, the mayor's spokeswoman, said there is a place for both the neighborhood boards and the visioning teams.

"Neighborhood boards work on everyday problems -- noise, traffic and power lines," Costa said. "They have a very full agenda."

The visioning teams, on the other hand, are supposed to look at long-range planning issues in such areas as water resources and transportation, she said.

Not all boards unhappy

Maeda Timson, chairwoman of the Makakilo/Kapolei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board, and Tom Heinrich, chairman of the Manoa Neighborhood Board, said they were happy with the way the visioning group in their communities was able to accomplish its goals.

"We made sure what we were requesting fit in with that plan and that we weren't haphazardly putting in these things," Timson said.

Heinrich said there may be some overlap between the neighborhood boards, visioning teams and empowerment zone teams, which were also initiated by the city. "But we need to build on the overlaps," he said.

Ben Kama, executive director of the Neighborhood Commission, said most of the neighborhood boards worked very well with the visioning groups.

Still, Neighborhood Commission Chairwoman Karen Iwamoto sympathized somewhat with the unhappy board members.

"These people at the neighborhood boards have been championing different causes for many years," Iwamoto said. "It seems all of a sudden there's another group that can exert more influence with the mayor than the neighborhood boards (can). They're wondering how much credence is being given to them."

Operating in a vacuum?

Kim said it's puzzling why groups wielding authority over $2 million each are not required to widely disseminate information about their meetings under Sunshine Law provisions.

"Neighborhood boards are advisory and don't have that kind of power, yet they have to abide by the Sunshine Law," Kim said.

Sunshine Law provisions require boards to mail and post agendas six days in advance of meetings, take minutes and give the public opportunity to testify. None of this is required of visioning teams.

The law is intended to open government to the public, which ultimately makes the decisions. If an agency doesn't follow the law, then then there is no accountability for how the agency spends taxpayers' money.

"Not that we're not in favor of visioning teams, but if a group is given this kind of power and standing, shouldn't they be the ones abiding by the Sunshine Law and inclusive of everybody?" Kim said.

"At this point it's questionable who is participating and what information is being disseminated and who is actually doing the leading," Kim said, noting that some charge administrative officials with steering discussion.

'No one is excluded'

The visioning teams do not fall under the categories of groups that need to abide by the Sunshine Law, Costa said, but that doesn't mean that word isn't getting out in the community that the meetings are taking place.

"Absolutely no one is excluded from the process. The neighborhood boards have been invited since the beginning and continue to be included."

Some 4,000 to 5,000 people, people who have attended visioning meetings, get agendas sent to them, she said. Minutes are taken but not disseminated, she said.

The visioning groups also try to use community newspapers to inform them of upcoming meetings, she said.

Iwamoto said she's hesitant about requiring the visioning groups to abide by the Sunshine Law.

She said she is trying to get committee meetings of the neighborhood boards exempted.

"We don't have the staffing available to take down minutes and assist the committees with their meetings," she said.

More public input urged

Timson said she likes the idea of imposing the Sunshine Law on the visioning teams.

"Sometimes it's humbug because the committees might meet only for a project," Timson said. "But if we don't follow the Sunshine Law, is there another method to let people know what's going on?"

Larry Meacham, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, said the teams don't go far enough in telling people that they are an important, decision-making body.

"Not to be spiteful or to make things difficult, but the reason for the Sunshine Law is to have the greatest possible participation and have the widest amount of information so that you can make better decisions," Meacham said.

"If you keep sending out agendas to the same 12 people who are coming, that's not the same as getting public input."

Even if the law does not require the visioning teams to follow the Sunshine Law, Kim said, "you would think that in the spirit of wanting to disseminate information that they would want to give this kind of openness and notification."

Vision program, 17 others
up for federal award

The city's 21st Century Oahu Vision program is one of 18 organizations and projects in Hawaii nominated for a Best Practices Award by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

According to a HUD release, the award honors those HUD-funded programs that maximize resources "by using innovative methods to make a significant difference in the lives of the people in the communities they serve."

The release further said that "as a result of the visioning process, citizen participation and support of projects has increased."

The 100 winners, chosen from among 3,000 projects nationwide, will be announced in Kansas City, Mo., this week.

The other nominees are the Multi-Sector Funding Network, the Hawaii Continuum of Care Coalition, the Honolulu Community Action Program, the Honolulu Weed and Seed Community Partnership, the Public Service Announcement Campaign, the Rebuild Hawaii Consortium, SuperNOFA Outreach, Empower Oahu, the Kalani Computer Learning Center, the Kalihi Valley Resident Association, Housing -- Promotion of Public Private Partnerships, Maui's ConPlan, the Hale Mahaolu Elima Project, the Hawaii County Continuum of Care Program, Building Caring Communities, Greening the Campus and the ABC Fund.

Gordon Y.K. Pang

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