Honolulu or Bust?
Honolulu is too big to govern.
It may be time to break up the City and
County into smaller municipalities
Some time back there was a newspaper article headlined: "Oahu civic boards hurting -- Low interest leads to calls for reform."
The article really nailed the problem. I served six years on my Neighborhood Board. As a city worker, I also acted as the mayor's representative at numerous other board meetings in the past. I agree that the Neighborhood Board system has been in its death throes for quite awhile. Few members of the public attend meetings, board vacancies go unfilled, meetings are too long, with few results. And, as the article pointed out, members are "frustrated by limits and lack of power." Mayor Harris' creation of competing "visioning teams" was the final blow.
When Neighborhood Boards came into existence by City Charter Commission in 1972, it was felt that the boards would give more citizens throughout Oahu an opportunity to participate in government and to represent the opinions of their friends and neighbors in a forum where they might draw attention to their concerns. It was a good idea then, but it is now time to rethink the entire City and County structure so that democratic ideals really prevail.
When Hawaii became a territory of the United States in 1893, there were no county or municipal governments at all. When Congress eventually passed the Organic Act, there were still no provisions for municipal or county government. The Territorial Legislature corrected that oversight in 1905 and established the Oahu County government (That's right! Oahu County!). On Jan. 4, 1909, the City and County of Honolulu officially came into existence when Joseph J. Fern was inaugurated as mayor.
Today we still operate under a system first formulated almost a century ago and designed for a much different age.
Conditions have changed considerably during the past 99 years. According to the 1900 census, Oahu's total population was a mere 58,504. By the 2000 census, Oahu's total population was 876,156.
The City and County of Honolulu is the largest municipally run entity in the United States, if not the world. The island of Oahu has the same total area (596 square miles) as Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Miami, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., COMBINED!
The diversity of interests and activities within that 596 square miles is mind-boggling. Let's look at selected communities with similar sounding names yet with very dissimilar needs and desires:
>> Waialae and Waimanalo
>> Waikiki and Waipahu
>> Kailua and Kaimuki
>> Kapolei and Kapalama
>> Hawaii Kai and Kalihi
>> Downtown Honolulu and Hauula
Does one size fit all? Does one huge government serve all very well? I think not! We need to formulate a government structure on this island that would meet the diverse needs of our very different communities.
One solution could be to divide Oahu into a number of lesser administrative districts comprised of similar communities and neighborhoods. These districts would have some degree of authority to either "keep the country country" or to jazz up visitor destination areas.
The Hawaii State Constitution already provides for the creation of smaller political subdivisions.
Article VIII, Section 1 reads: The Legislature shall create counties, and may create other political subdivisions within the state, and provide for the government thereof. Each political subdivision shall have and exercise such powers as shall be conferred under general laws.
Several models from communities across the country could serve as examples for subdividing Honolulu County.
One is the Miami/Dade Country (population 2,253,367) Home Rule Charter. It allows for diversity between communities but retains many county-wide services for economy of operation. A key section (Section 5.02) of that charter reads:
"Each municipality shall have the authority to exercise all powers relating to its local affairs not inconsistent with this Charter. Each municipality may provide for higher standards of zoning, services and regulation than those provided by the Board of County Commissioners in order that its individual character and standards may be preserved for its citizens."
Other provisions include:
1. At the county level:
>> Creates a board of county commissioners that is the legislative and governing body of the county to carry on a central metropolitan government.
>> Creates 13 county commission districts.
>> States that boundaries shall be fixed on the basis of the character, population and geography of the districts.
>> Establishes that the 13 commissioners shall be a qualified electors residing within his or her district for at least six months; and
>> States that the mayor shall not serve as a member of the commission.
2. At the municipal level:
>> States that "The right of self-determination in local affairs is reserved and preserved to the municipalities except as otherwise provided in this Charter."
>> "Any municipality may adopt, amend, or revoke a Charter for its own government or abolish its existence ... "
Another model is Indianapolis/Marion County (population 860,454). On Jan. 1, 1970, the city of Indianapolis expanded its boundaries to include all of Marion County. This consolidation was called unified government (Unigov). Most, but not all, functions of local government were absorbed by Unigov. Their "home rule" legislation denied certain powers to the local governments, but allowed them to keep their status as individual and different towns. Honolulu has been going in the opposite direction, primarily because we should and could recognize various areas of Oahu as distinct communities.
Other pertinent sections of the Unigov charter:
>> Divides Marion County into nine townships.
>> Creates a township assessor who deals in real and personal property taxation.
>> Creates a township trustee whose office provides direct general assistance to the poor.
>> Creates an elected township constable who serves summonses, warrants and subpoenas enforcing orders of the small claims courts in each township.
>> Creates a township advisory board of seven members who are elected by the voters.
>> Elucidated a policy that stated that "the policy of the state is to grant units all the powers they need for the effective operation of government as to local affairs." And;
>> Stated that "the new home rule, being statutory rather than constitutional does not allow the 'sovereign' operation of local governments without the consent of the Legislature but is rather a grant of authority to them by the Legislature through implied consent."
The City and County of Honolulu already has attempted to deal with the great geographic distances and diverse interests between areas by creating satellite city halls, police substations, Neighborhood Boards and other efforts at decentralization.
The fact remains, however, that residents in these far-flung communities has very little control over the issues that most directly affect their lives as residents in these communities. Neighborhood Boards just can't handle the task.
There should be at least nine identifiable administrative sub-divisions based on the pre- Mahele moku (districts) and ahupuaa (mountain-to-sea regions). The original moku were:
>> Ewa (Could be divided into at least two districts)
>> Kona (Could be divided into three districts: Honolulu, Waikiki and Kahala-Kai)
Honolulu could remain essentially the same as it is now considered by the U.S. Census Bureau. If you look Honolulu up in an almanac or other statistical guide you will find it listed as 39th in population with an area of 82.8 square miles with a population of 371,657.
But in the same almanac you might find that 401,524 people are employed. That's a sensational employment ratio. But those figures contain asterisks. The almanac states that the employment figure comes from the Census Bureau and represents an MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area).
But the Census Bureau also lists Honolulu as a Census Designated Place (CDP). The accompanying explanation says although these areas are not incorporated, they are recognized for census purposes as large urban places. The Honolulu CDP is coextensive with the Honolulu Judicial District within the City and County of Honolulu. So you can see, that the U.S. government has already decided to divide up the City and County of Honolulu for some purposes and not for others.
But the Census Bureau also considers Waianae, Haleiwa, Hauula, etc., as CDPs, and this statistical hocus-pocus has prevented these places from benefiting from some federal rural programs because of being lumped in with the City and County of Honolulu.
Similar to the status of Miami Beach, Waikiki should definitely be a separate entity from the mother political entity. Waikiki is our "industrial" zone and its needs are very special. Certainly what may be good for Kailua or Nanakuli is not necessarily good for Waikiki.
The fine lines for these new subdivisions could be roughly based on the pre-Mahele ahupuaas and each moku would have a district capital, e.g. Kailua for Koolaupoko, Waianae for the Waianae coast.
Some may say, "We don't need more government." That is certainly true. But such reorganization could be undertaken without resulting in any additional costs except for those extra services that the individual districts themselves would wish to undertake. The main point is that this plan follows the old political dictum that "Government closest to the people governs best!"
Moku boards would have selected power and would give real meaning to home rule and local government.
Reorganizing the structural form of the 11th most populous and largest (in area) city in the United States is no small matter. But we are in the 21st century and we should be looking a what form our local government should take to best serve our citizens now and in the future.
A joint task force including members from all three branches of government, I am certain, could create a unique political structure that would be much preferred to the present system. Maybe we should re-establish the "Home Rule Party" to undertake this task.
James V. Hall worked as a writer and researcher attached to the mayor's office.