Lincoln Ashida: “What is the Legal Difference Between a Voter Initiative and an Ordinance?”

From the Desk of Lincoln Ashida:

Lincoln serious

During the recent lively Hawai‘i County Council debate concerning the two-year suspension of payments into the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Fund, a question asked was whether voter initiatives enjoy greater legal recognition and protection than ordinances passed by the Council.  This question was asked in the context of arguments made that voter initiatives should not be subject to amendment by the County’s legislative body.

The short answer is there is no legal difference.  Voter initiatives once passed, become ordinances with no greater or less recognition than ordinances (laws) passed by our Council.  This means they are subject to amendment and repeal or other modification as any other local law.

In the 2008 general election our Hawai‘i County Charter was amended to provide voter initiatives that become ordinances cannot be amended unless there is a two-thirds vote of the Council.  This amendment applies to voter initiatives passed after the 2008 general election, so it did not apply to the amendments made by the Council to the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Fund ordinance.  However, the 2008 amendment to the Charter makes clear the will of the voters is to extend greater recognition and protection to voter initiatives compared to Council-passed ordinances.  This is a positive step in our democratic process that affords our voters an active role in public policy formulation at the County government level.

For those in County government responsible for overseeing our public elections, this means even greater care must be deployed in ensuring proper information is provided to the public.  From distributing public information reciting “pros and cons” to crafting neutral ballot language, voter education is critical.  Luckily, our County is blessed with a very effective County Clerk and a very efficient Elections Division.  As the opportunity for greater public involvement in the County government process grows, our County legislative branch is up to the challenge of ensuring all members of our island community are informed.

As ever, if you have any comments or questions on the above or any matter, please feel free to email our office at Lashida@co.hawaii.hi.us, or call me at (808) 961-8304, extension 118.  This message was posted on June 16, 2009, at 10:20 a.m.

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