Volunteering on Government Boards Yields Emotional, Intellectual and Professional Rewards
Volunteer to serve on a government board or commission and you will have a say in decisions involving land use, affordable housing, taxes or other important issues.
In 2021, about 395 seats will need to be filled on state boards alone; each county will have plenty of openings too.
Regular citizens can have a say in state government decisions without running for elected office: serve on any of the state’s 170 boards and commissions. Hundreds of positions open up every year, and if you meet the criteria, you’re likely to be welcomed because not enough people apply.
Each board and commission makes or informs decisions on a vast number of issues, including conservation, affordable housing, land use, disabilities, ethics, procurement, law enforcement and prisons.
Altogether, these state boards and commissions have 1,600 seats; some are ex officio and must be filled by leaders of state agencies. But most are occupied by ordinary citizen volunteers. In 2021, about 395 seats will need to be filled, says Kym Sparlin, state director of intergovernmental relations and policy.
The roles take time and commitment, and some seats can only be filled by people from a specific island or with relevant professional experience. Some people are discouraged by the requirement to publicly disclose their finances, but those rules only apply to boards with significant authority: the Board of Agriculture, UH Board of Regents, state Ethics Commission, Hawaiian Homes Commission and 11 others.
There’s no single answer on how to get more people to serve on these boards. Some people familiar with the boards favor a more robust recruitment strategy, believing more people will volunteer if they know what these boards do. Another suggestion is to provide meaningful compensation for people serving on more of the state boards and commissions; currently, only a few boards pay their members.
“We need to keep these boards on the top of mind of the populace because it’s not only about our elected officials,” says Christopher Edwards, president of the League of Women Voters of Honolulu County. “Representative democracy isn’t only about our elected officials, it’s about these folks as well. And they have a big, big impact on the everyday lives of all of us.”
More Volunteers Needed
Some of Hawai‘i’s 170 state boards and commissions were created by the state Constitution, others by state statutes or executive orders. Each is overseen by a state department. And the counties each have dozens of their own boards and commissions.
State board members are appointed by the governor and some need to be confirmed by the state Senate, says Sparlin.
Finding people to fi ll board seats is a large job. Each year, an average of 350 seats need to be filled as members reach the limit of their terms or choose to leave, Sparlin says. State law mandates that members can only serve two consecutive terms on the same state board, though there are exceptions. “That yearly turnover is imperative. It’s important to the democratic process that we have that turnover, so you don’t have the same old, same old. You get some fresh blood, get some fresh ideas,” she says.
Some nominees are recommended to the governor by the state House speaker or Senate president; others come from nominating commissions or from state agencies. And people can nominate themselves. Every nominee must submit an application through the state boards and commissions website (boards.hawaii.gov). Sharon Ibarra, director of boards and commissions in the governor’s office, writes in an email that an average of 450 applications are received each year. Some boards get plenty of applicants, while others get very few or none.
Sparlin says the governor’s office looks at how each applicant will fit within the board they’re interested in and considers members’ political affiliations and professional specialties. For example, if a board has multiple attorney seats, the office wants the attorneys to have different specializations, she says.
The office also looks at the perspectives lost as board members leave their posts, and which characteristics will be needed in their replacements. The intent is to maintain a balance of different viewpoints, Sparlin says: “Could it be a woman? Could it be we need a younger voice versus a retired voice? And then we go out and recruit that way.”
She adds that the governor’s office has ramped up recruiting efforts over the last year by working with community and professional associations and using social media to publicize the intrinsic rewards that board members receive from their public service.
“There is an opportunity to have your voice heard, to make a change in the areas that you feel really passionate about,” Sparlin says. “And we don’t want to just go with the same people, day in, day out. You want those fresh ideas.”
Colin Moore, director of UH Mānoa’s Public Policy Center and chair of the School of Communications, says these boards and commissions are especially important in Hawai‘i, where citizens have relatively few opportunities to directly participate in government, especially below the county level. In most Mainland states, there are county governments, and under that, city or town governments, elected school boards and a variety of other smaller elected bodies. O‘ahu has elected neighborhood boards, but they don’t hold much power, he says.
“There’s more reason for us to try and make an effort to recruit for these boards and commissions because there are just fewer opportunities to have your voice heard in Hawai‘i than there are in a lot of Mainland states.”
Filling Empty Seats
Some state board seats are more difficult to fill than others. For example, members of the board that certifies personnel at wastewater treatment plants need to understand wastewater and environmental protection laws. “These are not folks that are going to be the general off-the-street public,” Sparlin says.
On Kaua‘i, where state Senate President Ron Kouchi lives, the Koke‘e State Park Advisory Council, the Kaua‘i Board of Taxation Review and the Kaua‘i Aquatic Life and Wildlife Advisory Committee have had too few members to make quorums for over a year.
The Koke‘e park council helps update and implement the state park’s master plan. Members must be Kaua‘i residents with general knowledge of one of four strategic areas: education; cultural resources; the environment; or native plants, animals and ecosystems. Kouchi says the board has been difficult to fill for at least the past 10 years he’s been in the Senate. Part of the problem is just finding people who are passionate about the state park, he says.
“Part of the frustration for me is I’m a Waimea High School alum, I grew up in West Kaua‘i, so I kind of know a lot of people out there. And not being able to find somebody to serve surprised me.”
When boards can’t meet quorum, their functions are sometimes absorbed elsewhere, Sparlin says. For example, some of the hunting and wildlife issues that the Kaua‘i Aquatic Life and Wildlife Advisory Committee would discuss are now being taken up by other boards.
Ethics rules also limit who can serve on state boards and commissions. Marilyn Gagen is a CPA and a former member of the Hawai‘i Island Board of Taxation Review, which informally decides disputes between taxpayers and tax assessors. This gives taxpayers an alternative to filing a formal appeal with the Hawai‘i Tax Appeals Court. She recently moved to the Mainland and used to help recruit volunteers for O‘ahu’s board and says one issue is that board members cannot represent clients in front of the tax department while they’re serving on the board, plus a year after that. But representing clients before the Tax Department is an important role that many CPAs play. That makes it hard for a sole practitioner to serve on the board because they don’t have colleagues who can represent the clients in their place.
Sparlin says that rule impacts people’s livelihoods and discourages many from serving. “I’m not saying we need to change the rules. I think the rules are really, really important. But there’s all these little nuances in there for why it’s hard” to find board members, she says.
The governor’s office will sometimes look for retirees who still have their professional licenses to fill vacancies for licensing boards. They don’t have to worry about losing clients, plus “they also have more time on their hands than most people,” Sparlin says.
Several sources interviewed for this story agree that another deterrent is the 2014 law that requires members of 15 major boards and commissions to publicly disclose their finances. Those include members of the UH Board of Regents, the state Ethics Commission and Land Use Commission boards, and the Agribusiness Development Corp. board of directors.
Board members must reveal salary ranges and sources of income for themselves, their spouses and their dependent children. They also must provide information on their creditors, stock holdings, business interests and properties. State House Speaker Scott Saiki says the public financial disclosures help the broader community determine whether board members have conflicts of interest.
UH’s Moore says: “I support financial disclosure but I’m certain that there are people who would be good board members who decide they’re not interested in providing that information for a variety of reasons. It could be perfectly legitimate; it doesn’t mean they’re trying to hide anything. It just means they’re not comfortable exposing all of their financial information.”
This public disclosure law is why Kaua‘i resident Tom Shigemoto resigned as a UH regent in 2014.
“I just didn’t think it was necessary that when you serve on a voluntary board, that anybody needs to know what your financial situation is, good or bad, and just on principle alone, I felt that wasn’t right, so I stepped down,” he says. But he agrees that board members should disclose any potential conflicts of interest.
Members of other boards are required to file financial disclosures with the state Ethics Commission, but their disclosures are not made public.
Sparlin says that board members and individuals interested in volunteering can call the Ethics Commission with concerns about these disclosures. The fact that it’s hard to financially survive in Hawai‘i might also play a role in why more people don’t volunteer, Moore says, adding that families with children tend to need two adults working full time, so they don’t have the time to serve on boards.
Most of the state’s boards and commissions are voluntary and unpaid, though they do reimburse members for travel, and a couple provide nominal stipends for members’ time. Only a handful pay salaries.
“I think that explains much more of it than some sense that people care less or are less engaged. I think a lot of it is due to financial pressure,” Moore says.
That means people who serve are often affluent or retired. “To some degree having some compensation for this work would actually allow you to attract a broader group of people probably,” he says.
How much time members spend on their duties depends on each board; some meet quarterly, others monthly. Some require members to serve on subcommittees, others call for research or readings outside of meetings.
Wes Machida, a former state finance director, has served on several state boards in both ex officio and appointed roles. Many of those boards met monthly, and some of those required members to serve on committees that also met outside of regular board meetings. He continues to serve on the state Employees’ Retirement System board of trustees, which he says requires at least 10 hours of his time every week.
Gagen’s workload for the Hawai‘i Island Board of Taxation Review was lighter as it only met quarterly. The meetings took all day, and preparing for them took another full day, she says, but the commission was assisted by the state tax department.
Drawing More People
Machida says many good, dedicated people already serve on state boards and commissions, but additional efforts are needed to get more. He and several others agree that it would be helpful to better inform the community about what Hawai‘i’s public boards do. Many people, they say, might not understand their full impact.
State Sen. Les Ihara, Jr. facilitated workshops in 2013 and 2017 with civic-minded organizations to encourage people to apply for open seats on the state Ethics and Campaign Spending commissions. Ihara says commissioners and executive directors explained their roles, the time requirements and how to apply. About 15 people attended each workshop.
The League of Women Voters of Hawaii was one of the organizations that helped with these workshops. Edwards, the O‘ahu chapter president, says the organization is currently not active in helping state boards recruit, but is interested in how it can help expose its members and the broader community to the state’s boards and commissions.
There’s a push to get more women to serve on these boards, and Sparlin says the governor’s office looks at gender and economic parity when recommending new board members: “We want healthy diverse conversations. We want people who will bring in a different perspective based on different experiences.”
The Women’s Legislative Caucus in August sent a letter to Gov. David Ige and other state leaders requesting that appointing authorities strive for gender parity on state boards and commissions and the state judiciary. An analysis of 18 major state boards and commissions by the staff of former state Sen. Laura Thielen found that 34% of board members were women. The analysis was conducted in January 2020 and included the Board of Education, Board of Land and Natural Resources, Hawaiian Homes Commission, Judicial Selection Commission and Ethics Commission. Many of these major boards require the filing of public financial disclosures.
“If you have a passion and commitment to make a change, there’s a board for you somewhere.” — Kym Sparlin, State Director of Intergovernmental Relations and Policy
Thielen, who was a co-convener of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, says many qualified women volunteer to serve on these boards, but they’re often overlooked.
“It takes an acknowledgement of the appointing authority that gender parity is important to these boards and commissions, that they will do a better job of representing the population of the state of Hawai‘i,” she says.
On Oct. 13, AAUW Honolulu held a virtual talk story to inspire participants to apply for board or commission positions. AAUW – the American Association of University Women – aims to advance equity for women and girls. Caroline Kunitake, AAUW Honolulu board secretary, says the talk story session provided an opportunity for women to become civically engaged and to move into positions of influence and leadership. She says the pandemic has only highlighted “the need for functional government.”
Sparlin says conversations have been held in the community about paying more members of more boards, but that decision is up to the Legislature.
If the Legislature decides that more board positions should be paid, Moore suggests using the per diem received by Neighbor Island legislators as a basis for determining the compensation. The legislators receive $225 per day – about $28 per hour for an eight-hour workday – when the Legislature is in session.
In 2019, a pair of companion bills in the state Legislature would have replaced the voluntary county boards of taxation review with a full-time statewide tax appeal review panel. The state Department of Taxation supported the bills, saying a full-time panel would allow appeals to be resolved faster.
“A substantial number of tax appeals to the boards of review have been unable to be heard or have been substantially delayed in being heard due to the boards’ inability to constitute quorum,” the department wrote in its testimony on HB 1043. “The Department further notes that the nominal compensation for board members and the conflicts of interest that may arise for practicing professionals have limited the pool of candidates who are qualified and willing to serve as board members.”
The bills ultimately died. Moore believes it’s harder to get residents to volunteer than in the past. He says this might be a function of the increasing number of boards. Hawai‘i has 170 state boards and a population of 1.4 million. Arizona, which has nearly 7.3 million residents, has just 220 state boards. Saiki says the state government should look at whether all its boards are still needed. “I’m not sure if it’s feasible at this point in time to have that many boards,” he says.
Helping the Community
The state boards and commissions website maintains a list of vacant board and commission seats. The list is updated twice a year: once before the legislative session and again after new members have been confirmed.
Sparlin encourages residents to learn more about the boards that interest them. Most have web pages that list their agendas, missions and the legislation that created them. And she recommends that interested individuals apply even when a specific board has no vacancy.
“There might be another one you never thought of that we’re like, ‘Hey, you have a skill set that fits, so you’re helping your community in a way you never thought of.’ ”
When people apply, they can list up to three boards. Sparlin advises applicants to list their passions and offer to serve wherever there’s a match.
“The biggest thing I want to encourage people is if you have a passion and commitment to make a change, there’s a board for you somewhere.”
State Boards & Commissions Directory
Did you know there’s a state Commission on Fatherhood, a Hawai‘i Aerospace Advisory Committee, a Cable Advisory Committee, a Pest Control Board and a Hawai‘i Sister State Committee? To see all of the state’s 170 boards and commissions and learn more about them, click here.
County Boards & Commissions
Snapshots of the Board Members
Nathan Okubo doesn’t like to say “no” to people, so when he’s asked to give back to his community, his answer is usually “yes.” The partner at Cades Schutte has served on three Honolulu County boards: the 2011 Council Reapportionment Commission, the Honolulu Charter Commission and the O‘ahu Real Property Tax Advisory Commission.
He says these commissions were “fantastic” experiences because they exposed him to city issues and enabled him to serve the community outside of his legal practice.
“I don’t always agree with government in how they do things, but I would rather be part of the change than to just sit on the sidelines and just watch it happen for me,” he says.
The Charter Commission is formed every 10 years and considers and recommends proposed changes to the Honolulu Charter. Proposals that pass muster are put on the ballot for voters to decide on. Okubo says that of all the commissions he’s served on, the Charter Commission required the most time, with members sometimes meeting three times a week. But, he says, it was fulfilling to see the commission’s efforts come to fruition.
One of the commission’s proposals created the Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency; another created the Department of Land Management, which manages all of the county’s real estate interests.
He says people should recognize the many benefits of serving the community. “If people can get over that hump of, ‘It’s just a lot of time,’ I think you stop losing track of the time you spend on it because it’s exciting, it’s enjoyable, it’s fulfilling.”
Volunteering is a large part of Tom Shigemoto’s life, from being a Little League coordinator to a soccer coach to serving on several nonprofit, state and county boards. Those boards have included the Kaua‘i/Ni‘ihau Burial Council, the UH Board of Regents and the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. board.
“I’ve always been of that mindset to help wherever I can, to the best of my ability,” he says. Shigemoto was a VP at Alexander & Baldwin Properties until retiring in April 2020. He says the company encouraged its employees to get involved in community and government boards and he chose to volunteer because of their impacts on the community.
He served on the UH Board of Regents for two years and resigned when the state public financial disclosure law went into effect. He says it was an educational and worthwhile experience that gave him a better understanding of what keeps the university system afloat.
“I feel my greatest accomplishment was, at every step, I never lost sight of the fact that my focus was students and especially on Kaua‘i because we have a small population, we have the smallest, I think, community college campus, the needs are great,” he says.
Before the pandemic and before moving to the Mainland, Marilyn Gagen would travel from North Kohala to Hilo each quarter as part of her role on the Hawai‘i Island Board of Taxation Review, a five-member board that hears and decides disputes between taxpayers and tax assessors.
A certified public accountant with her own tax consulting business, she says the board and its counterparts in the other counties provided a great value to the community by giving smaller taxpayers an opportunity to appeal their cases with an independent body.
“I find it very rewarding work because … we’re not only helping the process of administering the tax law but also educating taxpayers when they say, ‘Well, I don’t have any receipts but this is what I spent,’ and we have to explain that you have to have documentation,” she says.
The board also helped to build a better, less confrontational relationship between the state tax department and the taxpayer, she adds.
“By having a commission that listens to them and talks to them and asks questions, I think it helps to break through that fear and have it be more of a trusting relationship. That’s why I like doing it.”
The board tended to review three to five cases during each quarterly meeting. Gagen says many dealt with lack of documentation, the general excise tax and solar credits, but they also provided an opportunity for board members to learn more about tax law.
“It’s fun to have, when you’re a CPA nerd, to have those things you can look at purely from a professional and theoretical standpoint but not have any skin in the game,” she says. “It’s not you fighting the issue, it’s not your client that you’re fighting for but it’s trying to get the right answer for the situation.”