Success stories show public testimony's clout
By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer
By Treena Shapiro
In the coming months, lawmakers will discuss the changes they would like to see at the state level.
Now that the Legislature has opened its 2006 session, it is time for private citizens to start talking about the changes they want to see, too.
While many residents are content to watch things happen and grumble with friends and family later, that isn't the way to effect real change, say those who have successfully involved themselves in the process.
"If you don't like something, go do something about it," said 46-year-old Wayne Dang, a state-employed messenger. "People really need to get out there."
He should know. When the East Honolulu fisherman noticed that bright lights shining on the ocean were scaring away nocturnal fish, he spent two years getting a "light pollution" bill introduced and passed to set clear limits on illuminating the ocean with artificial light.
In a political arena where some of the biggest stakeholders hire professional lobbyists to advance their positions, the average person, especially one with a full-time job, might be overwhelmed at the thought of competing for lawmakers' attention.
It is worth the effort, legislators say.
Whether it's testifying at a public hearing, visiting a lawmaker's office or simply attending a rally, the very fact that a person has taken the time to express his or her views speaks volumes.
When large numbers turn out, "it makes a visible point," said Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Kane'ohe, Kahuku).
Waiahole farmers turned out by the busload last session to oppose a land transfer that they feared would jeopardize their rural community. While more than 70 members of the Waiahole-Waikane Community Association appeared at a public hearing, "they limited the testimony to maybe a dozen or so people who each had a different slice of perspective," said Hee.
"That's effective in its presentation," he said.
Also effective are individual speakers who can bring a human dimension to pending legislation.
Manana Elementary School pupil Natasha Garcia, 10, saw potentially lifesaving legislation passed last year after she helped educate lawmakers about the challenges of dealing with juvenile diabetes at school.
"Oftentimes when children come before our legislative body in hearings, they have been able to share firsthand experiences," said Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu). "(Natasha) was able to tell her story about the need for someone at school to always be in a position to help children with these chronic conditions."
Natasha's father, Leo Garcia, submitted written testimony explaining the importance of having someone at the school trained to administer lifesaving glucagon shots, but he left most of the talking to Natasha.
"It's compelling when a child gets involved," he said. "When you put a face to a cause, it makes a big difference."
Natasha was so persistent that she not only appeared at every hearing, but when the bill passed, she followed up with the governor and was invited to be present when the bill was signed into law.
Now a member of the Legislature's Keiki Caucus, Natasha said: "Voting is not enough. You have to get involved if there are concerns and issues that require your attention."
In an island state, where the location of the Capitol on O'ahu can make it difficult for Neighbor Island residents to appear in person or even pay for long-distance phone calls, it is important to remember that some House and Senate members have offices on other islands, as well.
According to Hee, Sen. J. Kalani English, D-6th (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i), and Sen. Paul Whalen, D-3rd (Kohala, Kona, Ka'u), were able to present compelling testimony on behalf of their constituents on the impact that a graduated driver's license for teenagers could have in small rural communities, particularly when those teens are the primary way their younger siblings get to and from school
"By limiting the number of riders, you could limit the ability of a small community to provide transportation," Hee said he learned from his colleagues.
While the Neighbor Island residents might not have been able to turn out in droves to represent themselves, Hee said, English's and Whalen's testimony led to changes in the crafting of the bill.
English, who considers his office in Honolulu a home base for Neighbor Island visitors, welcomes the opportunity to talk to members of the public, but warns there are times when eagerness to testify can backfire.
He has seen bills that otherwise would have passed die in committee because testifiers did not give the members time to vote before the deadline. "Please give us time to vote," he said.
English also stresses the importance of written testimony. Submitted one or two days before a hearing, well-written testimony will be given more thought than spoken testimony or testimony submitted on paper after the hearing, "when we might already be moving on to something else," he said.
For those unsure of how to navigate the legislative process, the Public Access Room on the fourth floor of the Capitol offers workshops and everyday assistance to help citizens participate.
Harold Kahikina, a brain-injury survivor who now advocates for other survivors and their families, has been using the Public Access Room for 11 years.
"I could not have, would not have and can never accomplish what I do without the Public Access Room," said Kahikina, whose efforts have led to the creation of state advisory boards on traumatic brain injury and neurotrauma.
The Public Access Room staff keeps Kahikina updated on votes, hearing notices and bill status so he can stay on top of issues even when he is too busy to track them himself. "They are extremely extraordinary," he said.
While time restrictions may cause some people to rely solely on testimony, some suggest that advocating for an issue requires talking to lawmakers outside of committee hearings.
George Honjiyo, 71, spent a decade fighting for long-term- care insurance, which was his initiation into the political process.
For complicated and costly issues, those arguing for a cause need to do their homework and make sure they believe that what they are doing is for the good of the people, he said.
"It's a work of patience and education, and educating the right people," he said, pointing out that it is important to talk to key lawmakers, such as the heads of committees and those who can swing the vote.
"You always have to talk in person. They need to know who you are. They need to check your credibility," he said.
You also have to accept the possibility that all your hard work will be for naught, said Honjiyo, who saw a proposal for a long-term-care program pass through the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle.
"It really takes the wind out of you when it's something you've worked for for 10 years," he said.
Nevertheless, Honjiyo has not given up on the power of people to effect change.
"I'm getting involved in some other things this year," he said.
Reach Treena Shapiro at email@example.com.