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The Outdoor Circle CEO Mary Steiner


The Outdoor Circle has accumulated considerable clout since it began in 1912, and this year scored two important victories. The group convinced the state Legislature to ban mobile advertising vehicles. It also helped the City of Honolulu defend its ordinance preventing planes from towing banners over Hawai‘i’s beaches. With the political season heating up, CEO Mary Steiner turns to her next target: proliferating campaign signs.

photo: Jimmy Forrest

Q: The Outdoor Circle just came out with suggested guidelines for political candidates, such as not erecting signs more than 45 days before and 10 days after the election. What problem were you trying to solve?
A: There seem to be more signs, bigger signs, uglier signs. Hawai‘i used to have an ordinance that limited the amount of time the campaign signs could be up, but the state attorney general under the Cayetano administration decided that was unconstitutional. A lot has changed since then—this kind of regulation has stood up on the Mainland, and we decided to push for those same regulations. Signs on public property have been, and remain, illegal. [With private property] we can ask for voluntary compliance.

Q: You called mobile advertising trucks “an end run” around Hawai‘i’s 80-year-old law against billboards. How long did it take to convince the Legislature to pass House Bill 2708, banning the vehicles?
A: About two years. The trucks haven’t been in Hawai‘i very long. We jumped right into it—we didn’t want the companies spending a lot of money to bring these trucks in, and then oppose them. Hawai‘i is one of only four states with this kind of restrictions on signs and billboards.

Q: In May a federal appeals court upheld Honolulu’s ban on aerial advertising, but the California-based Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, an anti-abortion group, has vowed to keep pressing its case. It claims that its First Amendment right to free speech is being violated. Do you think the group will take this to the Supreme Court?
A: The Outdoor Circle first worked against an aerial ad in 1948; it was a whiskey ad. Hawai‘i is a special, beautiful place and we have every right to maintain that—it is an integral part of our economic engine. I think [the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform] would be really foolish to take this to the Supreme Court. They will lose, and if they lose on the Supreme Court level, every community where they are currently flying will immediately ban them.

Q: Do you have any concerns about a mass-transit system?
A: We will oppose advertising on the outside of any public transit system or on the outside of transit stations. Quite frankly, the very first round of transit presentations, they showed one of the ways they were going to finance this transit was through advertising, and we immediately started writing letters. We haven’t heard anything about that since. The state law already exists [the law pertains to off-site advertising], and public opinion is with us on these kinds of issues. People in Hawai‘i do not want to see that kind of visual blight.

Q: Let’s talk about trees. Some cities view them as being important to public health.
A: I would agree with that. We work closely with the city and county’s urban forestry division on tree preservation, as well as planting new trees and educating people on proper pruning. We’ve been working with the city and county to create a master plan: how many trees are out there, where are there spots to plant more, cost-effective cycles of pruning.

Q: For a privately funded, grassroots organization, you have a lot of power. What are the goals during the next Legislative session?
A: We want to increase our efforts to enforce sign ordinances throughout the state. And, to stop the burning of trees in our city parks. People are dumping hot coals on them [after a barbecue, for example]. I don’t think they’re intentionally killing trees, but we need to educate people about the damage.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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