Who should be in charge of running Maui County? This question was asked at a hearing on a resolution before a subcommittee of the Maui County Council and two answers emerged: the mayor or a county manager?
So what exactly is a manager? To answer that question, we have to look at the entire structure of the government itself. A county manager comes from an entirely different model called the council-manager system of government. In that system, only the council is elected. The council oversees the budget, general administration, and establishes various policies. To carry out these policies and laws, the council appoints a professional manager to run the day-to-day operations of the county. According to the National League of Cities, this is the more common form of government among counties and municipalities in the United States.
The council-manager model emerged out of the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century. It was meant to curb the political favoritism that came with the mayoral form of government in large, industrial cities like New York City. (Tammany Hall in the Big Apple was famous for such forms of favoritism.)
The first city to adopt this form of government was in 1908 in a little town called Staunton, Virginia. It caught on quickly and spread to cities and counties during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Other countries like Belize, Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand have adopted this form of government too.
So should we do the same? Many who testified before the Council on Monday think so. After all, the county manager doesn’t have to worry about fundraising and re-election campaigns. He or she would be answerable to the Council for appointments and carrying out the duties and services of the county. In a lot of ways, the manager is something like a chief executive officer in a corporation (or an executive director in a non-profit corporation) and the council serves as the Board of Directors.
Ironically, the resolution to consider a form of government designed to keep politics out of county affairs could be politically motivated. The resolution came from Council Chairman, Mike White. White has written editorials in this newspaper that have encouraged everyone to consider this form of government. White also has butted heads with the current Arakawa administration on various issues, proposals, and projects.
Of course, there were others at the hearings this week who want to keep voting for a mayor and want to continue with the traditional mayoral form of government. The county government we have now—which is the form of government for all counties—goes back to the same era in the early twentieth century.
While the Progressive Movement sought to reform municipal government, the people in the Territory of Hawaii simply wanted a municipality. Counties were created by way of a statute in the Territorial Legislature in 1905.
Unlike the mainland, voters in the territory were not allowed to directly elect their governor. The governor’s post was appointed by the President of the United States and in a few cases it was a political plum. Territorial governors often switched with the president and some had never been to Hawaii before taking on the job.
The creation of counties at the very least allowed people to directly elect an executive leader and a county council. Historically, this created a form of populism that has often been overlooked and forgotten. Long before the stark political changes in the 1950s, working people, unions and other civic organizations started flexing their political muscles early and on the municipal level.
John H. Wilson was the closest thing you could call a “celebrity” civil engineer and surveyor. Part Native-Hawaiian and born and raised on Oahu, Wilson made a name for himself as an engineer of big road projects, including our own Hana Highway.
He also was a politician. In 1900, the first year of the territory, Wilson helped form the Democratic Party of Hawaii. He was elected mayor of the City and County of Honolulu three different times from the 1920s through the early 1950s.
Mayor Wilson was among the few directly-elected leaders at the time. He considered his party the “party of the unwashed” and spoke on behalf of the little guy. People liked Wilson and he was beloved by many for what he did for the City during the territorial era.
So perhaps Councilmember Riki Hokama has a point when he said on Monday that “there is nothing wrong with being political.”
But don’t expect major changes anytime soon. The resolution heard this week doesn’t alter any government structures. Far from it. It creates a committee to review and explore the county manager as a possible alternative. The resolution is scheduled to be heard by the full County Council on November 20. Rest assured, the question will come up again.