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Behind closed doors: Reapportionment Commission could become less transparent

A powerful commission tasked with redrawing political boundary lines for Hawaii’s state and congressional districts appears headed for more secrecy than in previous years, with the formation of private permitted interaction groups in lieu of publicly held committee hearings.

Establishing draft rules to take most of its work behind closed doors consumed most of an hour-long meeting of the Reapportionment Commission on Tuesday, with a substantial portion of the meeting held in executive session as the commission sought advice from its attorney on whether the process of setting up the permitted interaction groups followed the Sunshine Law.

Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, asked that the permitted interaction groups be voided and redone to follow Sunshine Law requirements.

“We want to make sure the public is fully involved in the process because there were some concerns in the last reapportionment that the public wasn’t fully involved,” Ma said. “We want to make sure that transparency is being observed and the public can fully participate.”

Becky Gardner, a former staffer for a Big Island legislator, echoed Ma’s concerns.

“I ask that this commission err on the side of greater transparency and greater accountability,” she said. “The more open this process is above and beyond the Sunshine Law, … (we’ll) have more people engaged and we won’t have challenges like we did in 2011.”

The commission emerged from its closed door session with Chairman Mark Mugiishi saying the formation of the groups to develop procedures and prepare proposed reapportionment plans was legal, but the commission will vote on them at the next meeting to comply with the Sunshine Law.

“All of the commissioners are confident the proceedings were legal and were proper,” Mugiishi said.

Hawaii Island’s only representative on the commission, Dylan Nonaka, a Kailua-Kona real estate broker, said the commission plans to offer the public the chance to build their own maps once the numbers and the software are in place. Draft maps will be taken to each island for public hearings, he said.

The nine-member commission is formed every 10 years to redraw districts for the state’s two congressional seats, 25 state Senate seats and 51 state House seats based on the decennial census. Its work is important because it determines how many state House and Senate districts each island gets, as well as what regions they will represent.

It’s especially important for Hawaii Island, the fastest-growing island in the state and one that could be headed for its eighth House member.

The point of reapportionment is to ensure equal representation for all residents. The goal is to draw legislative districts with as close to the same number of people as possible.

The state had 1,455,271 residents, up 94,970 from the 2010 census, according to state-level data the Census Bureau released in May. More specific population data has not yet been released, but annual estimates indicate Oahu is losing population while the neighbor islands are gaining.

The Supreme Court has presumed a plan is unconstitutional if districts are 10% larger or smaller than the ideal population, which is derived by dividing the total population by the number of districts.

That means the ideal population of each of the 51 House districts in the state would be about 28,535, or, from 25,681 to 31,388 to stay within the 10% deviation. The ideal population for the 25 state Senate districts would be 56,635 or between 50,971 and 62,298 to stay within the 10% deviation.

It’s a daunting task for the Reapportionment Commission, which also strives to avoid the so-called “canoe districts,” where a state legislator represents parts of two or more islands. This has proven unsatisfactory to both the lawmakers and the residents, who feel their representation is diluted in comparison to having a state lawmaker represent a single island, opponents of canoe districts say.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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