As the City of Honolulu moves under Federal scrutiny over the expanding cost and financial control of the elevated rail mass transit project, asking the question of how decisions are made may be the best chance to redeem what is proving to be a costly lesson in municipal government.
The City and County of Honolulu encompasses all of Oahu making the Mayor and the nine members of the City Council the sole arbitrators for municipalities as divergent as Downtown Honolulu is from rural Kahuku.
The City and County of Honolulu structure was established by Charter in 1907 when Oahu had a much smaller population and a predominantly agricultural economic base.
This combined city and county structure concentrates power, which means decisions are entered with less public input, accountability, and consideration than what might be achieved with other governing formulas.
The impetus for an entity like the City and County of Honolulu to take on a mass transit project, both in design and scope, that would not have been undertaken on the state government level, may well be attributed to an imbalance of public vs government influence.
This opens the question of whether Oahu would be better served by a real Oahu County government servicing all of Oahu with municipalities such as the City of Honolulu and the City of Kapolei or even the City of Kailua or Haleiwa dealing with issues and services that impact them locally.
Separate municipal and county governments are the norm across the United States with the combined city and county structure being rarely used or wanted (decisively rejected almost 4 to 1 when put to a vote).
Making government more accountable by building separate branches is the basis of the American Revolutionary approach. It is a function of the 10th Amendment that leaves powers not vested in the federal government under direction of the individual states.
Each state in turn can give police powers to incorporated municipalities and to counties to build a leaner more responsive government at the local level.
These powers can be exercised in such ways as a County government overseeing water delivery, sewage systems and road work with private and or publicly held industry supplying power.
Incorporated municipalities have the right to enter into contract to purchase such County services and any other services, in any manner or design they see fit, to supply government as direct and accountable to their constituents as possible.
A natural question would be how can we afford separate county and municipal governments?
The incredible cost of massive public works is why an investment in additional public oversight may make operating separate county and municipal governments a bargain in the long run.
If, the rail project is completed and if the estimated yearly operating cost don’t overwhelm its value as a mass transit system, the process in which the City and County of Honolulu employs in making critical long-term decisions still deserves a 21st century reexamination regarding its efficiency.
Creating county and municipal governments that are more accountable and responsive to the public is the formula utilized in modern democracies for citizens to exercise more control over their own lives and to protect and promote the interest of their unique communities.
The quantity and quality of public input into government decisions, especially those that have a major impact on individuals and society, must be undergirded by the most efficient and robust political architecture possible for attaining democratic consensus.