The value of neighborhood boards

Honolulu Neighborhood Commission Office

I admit that I’ve only gone to a handful of Neighborhood Board meetings, the first one out of curiosity, and the next few because there was a community issue that I wanted to learn more about. Sometimes I left early, but I felt confident that things were on track and reasonably sure that government representatives would follow up on the things they promised.

Now the Honolulu Charter Review Commission is proposing to eliminate Neighborhood Boards, in a May 16, 2016 “Report of the Permitted Interaction Group: On Proposals Relating to Open Government.” The charter question would let voters decide the future of Neighborhood Boards.

Charter question: “Should the City increase citizen participation in the decisions of government through the use of electronic communication, such as television, Internet and email, and eliminate the Neighborhood Board system?”

I couldn’t make it to the June 9 public hearing about Neighborhood Boards, and by now the Commission may have backed down on its proposal. Whether or not you support Neighborhood Boards, here are some things to consider:

Do we need Neighborhood Boards? Honolulu’s Neighborhood Board System was created in 1973 to increase citizen participation in local government. The 33 Neighborhood Boards in Honolulu meet each month to discuss local issues and meet with government representatives. At the heart of the Neighborhood Boards are the 437 board members, who volunteer their time and energy to participate in government and give community members the opportunity to speak and be acknowledged.

It’s hard to find data about participation in Neighborhood Boards. It seems that more people than ever want to be on the board – in 2015, 610 people volunteered to run for 437 seats, filling 418 seats. But communities overall seem less enthusiastic – attendance at monthly meetings seems to vary by community and whether there is an urgent issue that people feel passionate about. I don’t think low attendance is because people don’t care – I think it’s because we have less time to spend on local concerns, and rely on outspoken Board members to look out for community interests.

There’s also the issue of not just open government, but accessible government. In July 2015, there were 998,714 residents of the City and County of Honolulu, according to the Hawaii State Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism. We have one mayor and only nine Honolulu councilmembers to represent almost a million residents. There are tremendous benefits when community members can meet government representatives face-to-face and when government representatives can be personally held accountable to the community. Letters and emails can be ignored or forgotten. It’s hard to demand unreasonable actions when a hard-working government representative is standing in front of you. It’s hard to hide behind the “office” when community members are standing in front of you.

Are the alternatives sufficient? The Commission recommends substituting “television, Internet and email” for Neighborhood Boards, but I believe that electronic alternatives alone are inadequate sources of citizen participation. Television and Internet are passive mediums, in which viewers receive information but have limited opportunity to interact with speakers. Even if government incorporates phone call-ins, video conferencing, and “live chats,” it requires that viewers engage in real-time, rather than watching broadcasts at a later, more convenient time. Email is slightly more interactive, in that government and community representatives can respond directly; but email also mutes the sense of urgency and passion that people may feel about an issue, and it does not offer a sense of personal connection between government and citizens.

We may not need a Neighborhood Board system, but I think we do need regular opportunities for community members to come face-to-face with government representatives and local businesses.

Can we afford it? According to the Honolulu Charter Review Commission, the Neighborhood Commission Office supports 33 Neighborhood Boards with an average annual budget of $932k per year (around $28k per board per year). Most of the budget is spent for 17 paid employees who support both the Neighborhood Commission Office and Neighborhood Boards, by coordinating elections, publicizing meetings, attending meetings, writing meeting agendas and minutes, advising board members, writing newsletters, video-taping meetings, and coordinating training workshops.

If the mayor and councilmembers were to host regular monthly or quarterly “town hall” meetings in each of the 33 neighborhood districts, it would cost significantly more than $1 million each year. And they would have much less time to do their “real” jobs.

Yes, we could save $1 million if we eliminate Neighborhood Boards. But we could also lose out on the next generation of government leaders, who often gain experience on the Neighborhood Board before running for public office. It’s intimidating and extremely hard to run for an elected office if you don’t have any experience and no one knows your name. If we could enact term limits for Neighborhood Board members, we could increase citizen participation and encourage Board members to run for public office, giving voters more choices for government leaders.

One last thought: in a representative democracy, does the fact that we don’t use a right to open government (Neighborhood Boards), or under-utilize it, mean that it can be taken away?

Have you ever attended a Neighborhood Board meeting or served on the Board? If yes, why did you attend or volunteer? If not, what would community issue or problem would make you determined to attend the next meeting?

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