For those of you who pay attention to how the Maui County Council does its business, who stay up on the news and think about the problems–and promise–of the town you live in and who somehow find the time in a busy week (and summon the courage) to visit a County Council hearing and actually speak in front of the dais, audience and television cameras, you will now have even less time to say whatever it is you wish to say. That’s right–no more three-minute speeches with an additional minute to wrap-up.
That’s because on Friday, Jan. 6, the council voted 8-0 (Mike Victorino was excused) to allow council committee chairpersons the ability to set up new, shorter time limits, if there are a lot of citizens who showed up to speak. According to a Maui News story published the next day, councilmembers said that so many people have been showing up to speak on various agenda items that hearings often go into extra innings or the council ends up not having enough time to complete its regularly scheduled business.
I suppose I’m supposed to be sad that our elected officials are further constricting an already narrow path for citizen participation in government, but what’s the use? You don’t need to attend many county council hearings to conclude that the Public Comment portion is a mere formality–a creaky old ritual that those in power go through so they can say with grave seriousness that they listened to all sides and all opinions before rendering a thoughtful judgment.
This is nonsense. Officials, briefed by staff reports, site visits, confidential legal opinions and personal visits from lobbyists, land-owners and corporate bosses, make their decisions before public hearings, not after. It does not, in the end, matter whether citizens speak for four minutes apiece or three or even one. And this has been true for many years, as this excerpt from the 1985 book Land and Power in Hawaii by George Cooper and Gavan Daws shows:
“In 1980 the Honolulu Advertiser reporter on Maui, Edwin I. Tanji [who later became city editor of The Maui News] attended a Planning Commission hearing on Makena Surf,” Cooper and Daws wrote. “He noted that of 25 who testified, 23 spoke against the project, but the matter was approved. Tanji concluded that ‘if a Maui Planning Commission decision on the Makena Surf condominium project is typical, public testimony in contested case hearings before the commission means nothing.’”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons