A West Hawaii County Council member says council meetings have lost transparency to the public because some council members have been using a parliamentary maneuver to stifle debate.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford has submitted a proposed rule change to the council that will be considered Wednesday. The rule change, Resolution 485, would allow each council member to speak at least once before another council member can close the discussion through a motion known as “calling the previous question” or “calling for the question.”
“We live in a democracy,” Ford said Monday. “In a democracy, everyone gets the chance to at least state their position.”
The council meets at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. The public can submit testimony at that site, or by videoconference from Hilo council chambers, Waimea council office, the county facility in Kohala or Hawaiian Ocean View Estates Community Center. The Pahoa Neighborhood Facility will not be open for this meeting.
“It’s gotten worse and worse and worse,” Ford said. “I’ve never seen this kind of abuse in three previous terms on the council.”
Ford declined to say which council members she thinks are stifling debate.
Calling for the question has become more common on the council. The most contentious occurrence came during a July 18 debate over a nonbinding resolution requesting Mayor Billy Kenoi to rewrite a bid proposal to allow more companies to compete with recycling, mulching and composting plans in addition to mass-burn incineration.
Forty-nine members of the public came before the council that day, and in four hours of testimony, supported Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille’s proposal that the bids be thrown out and the process start afresh. Wille sponsored the resolution after discovering all three finalists specialize in waste-to-energy incinerators.
The council members had barely begun debating the issue when Puna Councilman Zendo Kern called the question, saying “this is a political kind of thing that we should try to avoid.” He couldn’t be reached for further comment by press time Monday.
Because of state Sunshine Laws, more than two council members engaging in debate must do it at a duly noticed public meeting. Two council members may discuss items that may be voted on, but they are not allowed to solicit a vote.
Ford said shutting off debate before all council members have had an opportunity to speak does them a disservice. The call for the question requires a two-thirds majority vote, but she doesn’t think that affords enough protection from abuse.
North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff, chairing the meeting during the bid proposal debate, expressed the same frustration. She, Ford and Wille voted against the call for the question, but it prevailed on a 6-3 vote. Eoff later voted with the majority to kill Wille’s resolution.
But Eoff said after the meeting that she’d wanted a chance to explain her position.
She’s not pro-incinerator, she said at the time, but she felt the bid process should go forward until it was the council’s turn to weigh in on the issue. The council has the final say, because it will have to approve a contract before the project can go forward.
Eoff said Monday that she hasn’t yet thoroughly researched Ford’s resolution, but she supports the concept. The call for the question is useful if the group is going around in circles or repeating themselves, she said.
“Part of the purpose of parliamentary procedure is to protect the voice of the minority … to ensure that everyone has a chance to participate and to share ideas in an orderly manner,” Eoff said. “I don’t believe that the call for the question is meant to cut off legitimate debate.”
Ford said the parliamentary move does the public a disservice too.
“It’s denying the right of the public in this county to hear from their particular council representative,” Ford said. “It’s un-American.”