Hawaii: Legislators Connected to Communities
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Treating Citizens As Partners
Senator Les Ihara, Jr., sees collaborating with communities as the normal thing for legislators to do. “I came into the legislature as a community organizer, so I just naturally looked for people to connect and collaborate with. Plus, Hawaii has a culture and tradition of talking and working things out together.” This background has led Les to join forces with others to have legislator partnering retreats and hold community discussion forums on hot topics like gambling, death with dignity, and telecommunications. “The power of open communication, of thinking together, is tremendous. Using this approach really works, helps us make breakthroughs on hard choices.”
Senator Susie Chun Oakland was at a conference in New York state with elected officials from other states more than two decades ago and spoke with a legislator who had mentioned a children’s caucus made up of legislators. She loved the idea and believed that there was a better way to streamline issues and identify more unified proposals that positively affected children. As a House member, she felt that elected officials were always introducing competing bills relating to children and she and fellow lawmakers had no good process to assess what was best. Coming back to Hawaii and working with Representative Dennis Arakaki, they developed a unique children’s caucus approach, inviting children's advocates, various non-profits, educators, youth, parent groups, researchers, legislators, agency officials and other experts working together to develop policy, launching the Keiki (children’s) Caucus in 1990.
Similarly, at the suggestion of Speaker Calvin Say and Minority Member Cynthia Thielen at a Silver Legislature, Senator Chun Oakland and Representative Arakaki helped start the Kupuna (elders) caucus in 2005.
Keiki and Kupuna Caucuses
The Keiki and Kupuna caucuses function informally, but use the power and insights of all who participate in their work. The Keiki caucus uses monthly meetings to shape a legislative agenda and focus on events like Children and Youth Day in the Capitol. Last year’s event brought together more than 50,000 people to enjoy games, activities and hands-on learning. The caucus’s legislative package over the years has addressed the state minimum wage, family leave, education funding, teachers’ salaries, early childhood education, health insurance and care, grandparent caregivers and child protection.
The advocates, legislators, officials, citizens and others who comprise the caucus met recently and discussed the benefits they get from participating in the caucus approach:
“We get direct access to legislators.”
“We develop a legislative package with the breadth of the knowledge and experience of the whole group.”
“I have a chance to understand everyone’s point of view. We take the time to talk things through, so we really do learn what others are thinking.”
“Our legislators are able to bring people in to answer our questions—that wouldn’t happen without them.”
“Our ideas are improved by going through this reviewing process. Good ideas get stronger, other ideas are put aside. This way we strengthen our legislative package and find the important priorities.”
Legislators benefit too. The other caucus members “are my eyes and ears” says Senator Chun Oakland. “I understand the issues more completely when we involve the community and the people who will implement the law We always come up with a better bill than we legislators could create on our own. Plus, the process identifies the most informed people to provide testimony when the time comes.”
The Kupuna Caucus operates somewhat similarly by having advocates, officials, citizens and lawmakers jointly identify and address the issues of the aging. Using an informal discussion approach to their meeting, the Kupuna Caucus recently talked about current senior issues including the training of bank employees to recognize potential financial crimes targeting the elderly. What seemed different from meetings held in other legislatures was the interplay of the executive branch, legislators, the University of Hawaii and citizens in the discussion. Everyone’s opinion was welcomed and particular attention was made to ensure the impact on the neighbor islands was being considered. One example of collaboration from last session was the Kupuna Caucus’s use of teams of one caregiver and one policy expert to meet with legislators when key legislation was being considered.
Hawaii House Democrats have also developed a different approach to legislator town hall meetings. In 2002 they launched the “Lawmakers Listen” program whereby freshmen legislators hold a community meeting in their district during the election year and they bring with them the majority leader and at least one committee chair. They use a team effort among the individual representative, leadership, the applicable chair, and majority, communication and the representative’s staff. The representative will act as a moderator for the community meeting, set the topic and send out the invitations. Representative Linda Ichiyama went door to door in her district to drum up interest for her “Lawmakers Listen” meeting. The leadership and chairs go to the meeting to discuss key issues from the session, but they are also available to tackle some of the tough questions that involve explaining how they made difficult or unpopular choices. The majority staff provide helpful background information on the issues to be discussed at the meeting and Georgette Deemer of the communications office provides training, including videotaping, to help the new legislators prepare. “They may be uncomfortable being taped and surprised at how they appear on video, but nobody gets better without practice.”
The key, according to House Majority Leader Pono Chong, is that “the less we (legislators) talk, the better these meetings work. People may just need to vent, but whatever their reason, the important thing is that we listen.” Representative Ichiyama appreciated the team approach. “Having leadership there allowed me to focus on my role and doing it well. My mom made her chili and that helped make this a welcoming event, especially as many people came to the meeting from work. It was a great way to reach out to the community and hear their concerns.”
Hawaii legislators have some helpful suggestions looking for new ways to connect with their fellow citizens:
Meeting as a legislative team in community meetings helps reduce the pressure for new legislators. More experienced members can tackle the tough questions and everyone can concentrate on his or her role at the meeting.
The hardest part of “Lawmakers Listen” may be setting the meeting dates. With so many busy people involved, you have to start the date-setting process well ahead of time.
Using caucuses (children, elderly, women or other) that mix legislators, advocates, officials and citizens stresses cooperation and communication. It identifies priorities, builds a stronger, more credible legislative package and “puts everyone on the same page.”
The caucus approach gives everyone a chance to develop leadership skills. Different issues call for different caucus members to head the effort at different times.
Involving the university helps create a continuous stream of new blood in the caucus activities. It’s not unusual for an interested student to come to a caucus meeting and eventually become a legislative staffer, an advocate or an executive branch employee.
Tell your citizens about their role in the legislative process. Hawaii has a Public Access Room at the capitol and its website provides a video entitled “We the Powerful” that explains how citizens can participate (http://hawaii.gov/lrb/par/ ). Also the access room employees make presentations on the topic across the state to citizen gatherings.
“Be genuine,” says Senator Chun Oakland. Get involved with these groups if you have a passion for the work. People will figure out if you are only participating for your own political purposes.”
For more information, contact Bruce Feustel.