I’m Just a Bill Sitting on Wailuku Hill

The list of things that make Hawaiʻi unique among U.S. states is a long one. Our pristine waters, world-class surf, towering volcanoes, tropical climate, and the complex and beautiful Polynesian host culture all set us apart and give island residents a sense of pride...
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How Laws are made in maui county

The list of things that make Hawaiʻi unique among U.S. states is a long one. Our pristine waters, world-class surf, towering volcanoes, tropical climate, and the complex and beautiful Polynesian host culture all set us apart and give island residents a sense of pride. You can add Maui County’s government structure to that list of unique characteristics, as well.

Illustration by Chris Skiles

Many municipalities (cities and county governments) our size on the U.S. Mainland rely on a council or board of supervisors whose wishes are carried out by a strong city manager. The role of mayor is a ceremonial one, largely relegated to chairing the council meetings, and is sometimes passed from member to member on some sort of predetermined rotation. 

Maui County government—as laid out in the County Charter, which assigns various powers and describes how local government is formed and functions, much like the state or federal Constitution—relies on a strong, elected mayor, separate from the county council, who acts as the county’s chief executive. 

In addition to heading his own administration, the mayor manages all of the county’s various departments, from public safety and emergency management to water, public works, planning, parks, and liquor control. Department directors are appointed by the mayor and ratified by the council. A managing director assists the mayor with departmental supervision. 

Maui County elects a mayor every four years, while council members serve two-year terms, up to a maximum of five terms (10 years) in office, as dictated by term limits imposed in 2021. A candidate for council must be a citizen of the United States, a voter in the county, and a resident of the area of the county from which they seek to be elected for a period of one year before filing nomination papers. 

The county’s current residency areas—each represented by a seat on the nine-member council—are as follows: Molokai, Lanaʻi, West Maui/Kahoʻolawe, Wailuku/Waiheʻe/Waikapu, Kahului, South Maui, Makawao/Haʻikū/Pāʻia, Upcountry (Pukalani/Kula/Ulupalakua), and East Maui (Hāna/Keʻanae/Kailua). The districts are not equal in population, but share common interests, in that rural areas are lumped together, separate from heavily developed tourist districts, which face much different issues. 

Our council members are elected countywide, unlike the Big Island, which elects them by district. The reason for this has to do with the sparsely populated islands of Lanaʻi and Molokai. If Lanaʻi had its own council seat representing its population of just 3,320 (according to the 2020 Census), in order to give equal representation to the rest of the county, there would have to be 50 districts with populations about that size. That obviously would create an unwieldy governing body. So instead, the nine council members are elected “at large” by all county voters, rather than just those in their residential district. In theory, this requires them to consider the impacts of each proposal on the county at large, rather than just their own district.

Like the council’s, elections for mayor are non-partisan and administered by the County Clerk. The two candidates with the most votes in the primary appear on the general election ballot. (Technically, we call them the first and second special elections, since they are non-partisan.) Mayoral candidates must be a U.S. citizen, a Maui County voter, and a resident of the county for at least a year before pulling papers. Mayors are limited to two full terms (eight years) in office. 

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

So, how are local laws enacted? Individual council members may introduce legislation to create new laws, just as state legislators do. Some are proposed by their constituents. If the mayor wants to introduce a bill, he or she must convince at least one council member of its merit and ask them to introduce it on the council floor.

Once a bill is introduced, it is typically referred to one or more of the council’s eight committees for review, each of which is chaired by one of the council members and made up of the others. Here, details of the proposed law are discussed and its potential impacts are considered in the context of each committee’s kuleana, or set of assigned powers and responsibilities. The council chair, currently Alice Lee, leads the meetings of the council as a whole, so they do not chair a committee. 

The committees include Affordable Housing; Agriculture and the Public Trust; Budget, Finance and Economic Development; Climate Action, Resilience and Environment; Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency; Human Concerns and Parks; Infrastructure and Transportation; and Planning, Sustainability and Land Use. The eight committees typically meet two per day, Monday through Thursday, and the council as a whole gathers on Fridays, twice a month.

Before being sent to committee, each bill is also scrutinized by the office of the Corporation Counsel—essentially, the county’s lawyer—to determine if it complies with existing state and federal law, or poses any liability to the county. While their job is mainly to interpret the law and provide advice, corporation counsel can also recommend the introduction of a law or amendment. 

Once the committees have reviewed a bill, conferred with corporation counsel, and made their recommendations to the council, it may be amended prior first reading before the full council. Only upon second reading—which cannot take place at the same meeting as the first—does the council vote on the proposed ordinance. At this point, amendments are seldom made. Five members form a quorum and a simple majority is required to pass. The ordinance is then sent to the mayor for their signature.

The mayor has veto power, but can be overruled by a two-thirds majority of the council. Laws passed by the council are added to the Maui County Code, which details all of the county’s rules and regulations. 

The council also has final say on how the county spends its revenues. A draft budget is proposed by the mayor, and is then reviewed, modified, and voted on by the council. They may also adjust taxes, rates, and fees as needed to meet budget demands. 

Photo courtesy Cytonn Photography / Pexels

In addition to the executive branch (mayor’s administration), the legislative branch (the county council), and the judicial branch (the corporation counsel and prosecuting attorney), the county’s 33 boards and commissions essentially represent a fourth branch of government. Some answer to the mayor and council, offering advice and making recommendations. These include the commissions on Fire and Public Safety, Cost of Government, and Water Supply, as well as those related to social services, like the commissions on Homelessness, Persons With Disabilities, the Status of Women, and the Council on Aging. Others—like the Police Commission, Animal Control, Liquor Control, Board of Ethics, and the various regional Planning Commissions—are given their own enforcement powers and work more or less independently.

In certain unusual circumstances, when local government is unresponsive to citizen concerns, residents themselves can put a measure up to a vote by way of the initiative process, but it’s not easy. And financial issues, like the budget, taxes, and personnel are off limits. This is how the moratorium on genetically modified crops was passed in 2014. (Then-mayor Alan Arakawa refused to enforce it and the following year a federal judge struck down the law, stating that it was preempted by federal and state laws.) Any five qualified voters may submit an affidavit to the county clerk proposing a ballot initiative and then must gather signatures totalling 20 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the last mayoral general election—currently about 10,100 signatures. 

The County Charter itself can be amended by a vote of the council. Every 10 years, a Charter Commission is empaneled to consider ways to improve or modify the Charter. Their recommendations are forwarded to the council which then accepts, rejects, or amends the proposed changes and determines which will be put up for a popular vote as ballot measures the following November.

Dan Collins

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