Neighborhood board system is criticized
A city audit finds flaws in the structure deter participation
The "disjointed" structure and operational deficiencies of the city neighborhood board system keeps it from reaching its goal of assuring citizen participation in government decision-making, city Auditor Les Tanaka says.
The neighborhood board system at a glance:
» A nine-member Neighborhood Commission appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council
» A total of 32 active neighborhood boards whose members are elected
» Commission office consists of 16 full-time staffers led by an executive secretary appointed by the mayor. Staff positions are not subject to civil service laws.
» City Auditor Les Tanaka says the neighborhood board system is "disjointed" and has operational deficiencies. His audit criticizes commission, boards and the commission office.
"We found that structural flaws within the neighborhood system challenges its ability to meet its mission," the audit said.
The audit looked at the operations and activities of the system from July 1, 2002, through June 30, 2005. The neighborhood board system was established by the City Charter in 1972.
The system is made up of three parts: the 32 boards, the nine-member commission and the commission office headed by an executive secretary -- currently Joan Manke, who has been at the post since January.
"Together, these three entities comprise the neighborhood board system that promotes the concept of participatory democracy, involving communities in the decisions affecting them," the audit said.
But the audit found problems in all three parts of the system.
There is no clear authority and accountability between the neighborhood commission, commission office and the boards, the audit found.
For example, while the commission office provides administrative and technical support to the commission, the commission does not have the authority to hire or direct the office staff and does not have the authority to prompt the boards into action.
The executive secretary is named by the mayor, and the remaining office staff are exempt from civil service and serve at the will of the mayor, who can also set the staff salary.
The audit says the patronage positions are "problematic" because of the potential for staff changes when the administration changes, and because the executive secretary does not have any real authority over the staff.
"One neighborhood board member complained that when the current mayor appointed the executive secretary and neighborhood assistants, there was a corporate loss of over 15 years of experience in the neighborhood commission office," according to the audit.
The commission office was also criticized for handling complaints poorly, having an inadequate training program and handling board budgets improperly and ineffectively.
The audit detailed a "petty cash management problem" involving a "discrepancy" of $242 in the office petty cash fund due to confusion and bad money-handling practices. The audit took to task the executive secretary at the time for allowing the staffer who caused the problem to continue to handle the money as an alternate custodian.
The audit also noted problems with the boards.
Some boards are unable to attract candidates, some have high vacancies and absenteeism, and some boards exhibit a lack of decorum, according to the audit.
There were 15 complaints of lack of etiquette during the audit period, and nearly half were due to a Jan. 28, 2004, Makakilo/Kapolei/Honokai Hale board meeting during which "a board member was aggressive toward another board member, displayed nonverbal gestures that were arrogant, intimidating, disparaging, and condescending, and verbally attacked community members."
But the audit went on to say, "while issues of order and decorum ... have been raised, we believe many of the incidents are isolated to particular individuals or boards."
Manke said in a statement that the audit is welcomed and "confirms that there is room for improvement."
She noted that only the last six months of the audit period fell under the current administration of Mayor Mufi Hannemann.
"This administration has been working to improve the board system since it took office. The audit identified many shortcomings we are already addressing, and in that sense it confirms our efforts," Manke said. "It's a positive base line from which we can measure our progress."