So what do you think? messaged a friend on Facebook.
Is the Kauai County Council's new rule prohibiting members from questioning folks during testimony warranted? Or is it a mad power grab by Chair Mel Rapozo, driven by his beef with the loquacious Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura?
Well, it could be warranted, I replied. I think we've all heard Councilmembers — JoAnn perhaps foremost among them — yammering on, so that public testimony drags out way longer than is tediously typical.
But since their purpose is to contemplate and then decide on policy, my friend messaged back, and the sunshine law ensures that all debate happens within council chambers, I think that yammering is strongly preferable to silence?
The statement of opinion, followed by a question mark, indicated that my friend still had an open mind on the issue, as did I. But since all we had was The Garden Island's report, I knew I had to watch that part of the Council meeting myself. So I did.
For starters, this is not the first time Mel's been accused of power mongering for proposing rule changes. When he first assumed the Chairmanship, Councilman Gary Hooser falsely claimed that Mel was trying to reduce public testimony and ““deny Councilmembers the right to introduce bills.” Though the rule changes were approved, none of Gary's fears to came to pass.
The most recent change, which Gary again opposed, states:
The Chair may allow Councilmembers to ask speakers to repeat or rephrase statements made during their testimony, but Councilmembers shall not ask questions that give the speaker a greater opportunity to testify than others. Councilmembers shall not ask speakers about the substance of their testimony, or comment on testimony or speakers during the testimony period.
Mel's stated rationale for the rule change is “to encourage testimony from the public.” Apparently some folks have told him they're not comfortable with the Council questioning that often follows public testimony, with Mel quoting one guy who said, “Why I gotta be badgered when I'm just making a statement?”
The streamlined meetings that would result from shutting down the often extensive back-and-forth would be a by-product of the rule change, not the primary goal, Mel said.
“This is an extraordinary action that demands at minimum a public hearing,” Gary said, noting that he knew of no other legislative body that prohibited its members from asking questions.
But Mel said he'd basically taken the language from the rules of the Maui County Council, "where it works just fine."
The few who regularly testify before the Council weighed in on this issue, too, and they didn't like it, though John Patterson and Matt Bernabe could understand why Mel wanted to rein in the dialogue.
“Some would use the word badgering, some would use the word waste of time, sound would use the word pandering,” Matt said, recounting citizen comments made to him. “This is the language that comes back to me on some of you and I's engagement.”
JoAnn wondered whether Mel, as chair, couldn't simply “exercise his prerogative to cut off conversation when it's not fruitful” rather than impose a no questions rule.
He could, but I think we've all seen JoAnn challenge him whenever he's tried to stop her from talking. It's not easy to get any Councilmember to shut up once they've got the floor.
As KipuKai Kualii noted: “Some of us might have attorney-style tactics, in the courtroom what they would call feeding the testimony to make our point.”
And that's what's really at the crux of the rule change. Asking questions to gain clarity or more information is one thing — a good thing. As JoAnn said, it makes it harder for the Council to gather information needed to make good decisions.
But as I listened to the Council going back and forth, I recalled Gary badgering the seed company reps during the 2491 hearings and lecturing a man who made a negative reference to haoles. I remembered how JoAnn had coddled the Cowerns and some of the other people who were testifying on behalf of the B&B ordinance, drawing out their own particular sob story.
And it always seemed inappropriate for Councilmembers to comment on the testimony – good, bad, moving, compelling, flawed, etc. It often seemed, from their interaction with the public, that they did already have their minds made up, and their questions/comments were intended to either let someone who shared their view testify way longer than was fair, or discredit someone who didn't agree with them.
So the problem isn't the Council rules, but the Council. Or more specifically, the ego maniacs on the Council who can't simply listen to testimony with an open mind, without trying to influence the process.
Though everyone but Gary and JoAnn went along with the rule change, Ross Kagawa noted that he did so with reservations. “We want to get more people to testify,” Ross said. “If this is a cure, let's give it a shot, and if it doesn't work, we can pull back at some point.”
If the Council wants to encourage testimony, it might consider making its meetings more user-friendly. As in holding hearings in the evenings, with testimony taken at very specific times, so that people don't burn an entire day in Council chambers waiting for their turn to speak. I can't count how many people have told me it's soul-deadening to hang at Council. And it's costly if you have to take off work.
It seems extreme to forbid any questions at all. But it's also aggravating as hell to listen to the prolonged back and forth between speaker and Council, which so rarely seems to result in any meaningful exchange. Folks should be able to share all they know in the six minutes allotted to them, which is double what any other county in Hawaii allows.
And since some Councilmembers have shown they're unable to exercise self-control, perhaps a total shutdown is needed so they can learn how to really listen to what people have to say. Once they've got that down, then perhaps the rules can be eased.