Rethinking reapportionment

A 1902 map of Oahu

Testimony to the reapportionment commission

Aloha Chair Aiona, Vice Chair Shigemasa, and members of the Reapportionment Commission. Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify.

I’d like to state in advance of my remarks that I am a candidate for City Council in 2022, so I am not an unbiased commentator on this issue. And I am satisfied generally with the outcome of your work and thank you for the hours that you’ve spent dealing with the question of the make-up of the council.

I wanted to speak today briefly to highlight the path that we’re not taking with respect to reapportionment. Which is that we have not considered at-large or multimember districts, and I understand that there are legal questions that might be preventing us from taking that route.

However we need to take note of the political and policy ramifications for us not considering these larger districts. I believe we’re all aware that we are one year, nine months and 28 days into the most important decade of our lives. This is the decisive decade where we need action on climate in order to forestall the inhabitability of our biosphere.

The next several city councils will have to consider very serious questions about climate equity and the distribution of risk and reward: who pays for the seawalls and the movement of housing from the oceans up into the mountains; how do we deal with the very real possibility that we will be facing food scarcity because of droughts in major agricultural regions such as Central Valley California. These are clear dangers which will become increasingly present as the decade progresses.

Your reapportionment work can play a key role in designing a future council system that is more inclusive of all interests.

We have a tendency in our local politics to think of the city council districts as small mayorships. As a professional courtesy, I in Kalihi would be reluctant to opine on what happens across the Koolaus in Kaneohe, or vice versa. But this is outmoded. We need to think about ourselves as an island. The island must be the unit of analysis. We have a finite series of resources but we can share them equitably if our political structures echoed our economic and ecological reality. We need island thinking, not Kalihi or Kaneohe-centric thinking. If we had that, we would be less willing to accept sacrifice zones, the communities that are required to give up their quality of life for the benefit of everyone else. It’s why Waianae has the landfills and the unexploded ordnance, Kahuku has the windmills, Kalaeloa and Kalihi have the industrial sites, and east Oahu has three Apple Stores in a four-mile radius. If the political class were equally accountable to all classes, I’d be more assured that we will be able to face the more turbulent politics of the late 2020s with an eye to both the kanaka nui, and the kanaka iki.

There are three criteria for this body:

  • No district shall be so drawn as to unduly favor a person or political faction.
  • Districts, insofar as practicable, shall be contiguous and compact.
  • District lines shall, where possible, follow permanent and easily recognized features and census boundaries

It doesn’t say that the districts can’t overlap.

So as an example, the commission could create six equally-apportioned seats corresponding roughly to the traditional Moku boundaries, and three at-large island-wide districts, to deal with the population imbalance among the six Moku provide an island-wide perspective. (This would be very similar to the districts designed by former City Clerk Raymond Pua when he created the apportionment plan for the 1999 Native Hawaiian Convention.)

The three at-large seats might be dominated by Honolulu, but they would have to listen to their voters in Waialua and Waianae and Mililani and Kahala. And I believe that this would most ably accomplish the mission set forth in the Charter, which is “… to seek to achieve in our time that righteousness by which the life of our land is preserved and to encourage and enable our people to participate in their governance.”

Ours is a once-in-a-decade opportunity, and this is the decade for us to make big moves. Thank you for your consideration.

  1. Added "equally-apportioned" per conversation with Trever Asam on Facebook.
  2. Trever disagrees with my reading of the word 'contiguous.' He might be right. At any rate, it's one word we can subtract from the next charter review.