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How is the Mayor Doing?

It’s been two years since Mufi Hannemann took over Honolulu Hale. Is the city any better off today?


photo: Rae Huo
It’s almost 5 p.m., the day after Thanksgiving, and the mayor of Honolulu is exactly where he wants to be. In the spotlight. Yesterday, local TV stations filmed Mufi Hannemann carving a turkey at a Salvation Army dinner for more than 2,000 people at the Blaisdell Arena. Today, after a morning of back-to-back meetings and public events, starting with a 7 a.m. radio show, he’s squeezing in half an hour for a HONOLULU Magazine photo shoot in downtown Honolulu. The photographer adjusts the overhead lights to accommodate Hannemann’s 6-foot-7-inch frame. His makeup artist rushes over, making him stoop so she can touch up his face. The mayor is ready for his close-up. But we should’ve brought a microphone.

Less than 10 minutes into the photo shoot, Hannemann belts out a tune—yes, this is the singing mayor who introduced himself to Honolulu residents when he dueted with Marlene Sai at his own inauguration. The same one who, less than a year later, starred in a DVD music video of “I Fell in Love with Honolulu” as part of the city’s centennial celebration.

This time, Hannemann’s singing the ’70s soul classic “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show).” When he’s through, he tries out one of his lesser-known talents—impressions of Sen. Daniel Inouye, former Gov. George Ariyoshi and Marlon Brando as Don Corleone.

He’s not done performing yet. After the photo shoot, Hannemann will light a giant Christmas tree at Windward Mall, march in a Kalihi Christmas parade and present a check to the Honolulu Symphony at a Jake Shimabukuro concert, where he’ll also sing “Honolulu City Lights.”

Two years after his election, Hannemann still relishes the job, even though the past year proved tougher than the first, with a massive sewage spill in Waikiki, that threatened O‘ahu’s tourism industry, a public scuffle with the governor over Honolulu’s homeless crisis and the ramp-up to potentially the biggest fight of his political career, mass transit. Hannemann doesn’t even mind the nonstop pace of his seven-day workweek (Sundays are family days, he says, so he keeps his schedule “light,” with three or four public appearances.)

“My wife laughs, because every day I go to work, I’m so excited,” Hannemann says. “I’m like a kid on the first day of school. I love being mayor.”

But does Honolulu love having him? Halfway through Hannemann’s first term as mayor, it’s a good time to pose the question. We asked public officials, community leaders and others—fans and detractors alike—how they rate Hannemann’s performance and what they expect from his next two years.


The Problem:
When Hannemann took office in January 2004, he inherited a litany of problems that the previous administration had failed to address or, in some cases, had created. Under former Mayor Jeremy Harris, Honolulu’s debt climbed from $1.89 billion in 2000 to $3 billion in 2004. An analysis of city finances showed Honolulu spending $194 million, or a fifth of its annual budget, to pay off debt.

The city racked up much of that debt by greenlighting what Hannemann calls nice-to-have projects—landscaping or neighborhood signs, for instance—while neglecting need-to-have projects, such as fixing pothole-ridden roads or sewers notorious for repeated spills.

The Mayor Says:
For the past two years, Hannemann has introduced what he considers “no frills” budgets, replete with road and sewer improvements and devoid of beautification projects signature of the Harris administration. During his campaign, the mayor summed up his focus on basic city functions with the handy catchphrase “Do we need it? Can we afford it? Can we maintain it?”—a reminder that the city’s main job is to run vital, but mundane, municipal services.

For all this talk about fiscal responsibility, Hannemann has proposed record budgets in each of the past two years—$1.49 billion in 2006 and $1.35 billion in 2005, compared with the previous year’s budget of $1.22 billion. He’s spending more money than his predecessor, but much more responsibly. The city now spends more to pay off its debt, about $257.8 million in this current fiscal year. Last month, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services improved the city’s bond rating, or creditworthiness, noting the administration’s stronger financial reserve policies and improved fiscal oversight.

“The budget has never been more transparent or open than it is right now,” Hannemann says. “We’re not raiding special funds, like the previous administration did. People know their sewer fees will be used to fix our sewers. We’re spending more monies on basic infrastructure and public safety than the previous administration did.”

Hannemann has also looked to the private sector to curb city expenses. Private entities now manage and foot the bill for the city’s popular Sunset on the Beach events, which once cost the city $500,000 annually.

Critics say:
Even Hannemann’s toughest critics have few complaints about the mayor’s spending habits. Charles Djou, who has disagreed with the mayor over such issues as recycling and transit, says, “To Hannemann’s credit, he’s really focused the administration on unglamorous projects, like potholes and basic infrastructure.”

Council budget chairwoman Ann Kobayashi agrees. “The mayor has been really good about keeping his promise of fiscal responsibility,” she says. “You don’t see him doing things like adding new parks. He makes sure we’re fixing what we already have.”


The Problem:
Sometimes being mayor of Honolulu means dealing with crap. A whole lot of it. Since 1995, the city has struggled with a federal consent decree requiring that Honolulu fix its deteriorating sewer system. Under the 20-year agreement, the city pledged to renovate 1,900 miles of sewer line.

But last March, the result of decades of poor maintenance, neglect and sewer-fund raids came to the surface. When an underground sewer pipe broke in Waikiki, Hannemann says the city had no choice but to pump 48 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Ala Wai Canal, closing beaches in and around Hawai‘i’s tourism hub. That decision made headlines around the globe, tarnishing the image of the state’s top industry.

A crack in a Waikiki sewer main forced the city to release 48 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Ala Wai in March, shutting down several Waikiki beaches. photo: Craig T. Kojima, both courtesy of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin

The Mayor Says:
Over the past two years, Hannemann has dedicated $580 million, or half of each year’s capital-improvements budget, for sewer improvements. Harris had spent just $60 million on sewer work in his entire 10 years in office.

Hannemann also increased sewer fees for the first time in 12 years to finance those projects, with plans to double the average monthly fee from 2005 to 2010.

“I said in my campaign, my biggest fear was a sewage spill in Waikiki, because I knew we weren’t taking care of our infrastructure,” Hannemann says. “I got criticized for dumping into the Ala Wai, but had we not been able to do that, the backup into people’s homes, hotels, streets and restaurants would have been far more catastrophic.”

Bob Finley, chairman of the Waikiki, Neighborhood Board, praises the city’s response. “It was the only action he could take. The city worked all day and all night to fix the situation.”
Within four months of the sewage spill, the city built a temporary bypass to divert sewage from the Ala Wai to the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant—just in time to minimize a sewage spill in November, when contractors found a crack in another Waikiki, sewer main.

Critics say:
Some environmental organizations say the mayor isn’t moving fast enough to address Honolulu’s sewage crisis. Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawai‘i Chapter, says Hannemann’s administration knew that Waikiki, was especially vulnerable—a 2004 consultant’s report listed the pipe that created the nasty Ala Wai spill as “very critical.” The report also recommended that the city build a backup to the sewer main.

“The mayor definitely inherited this, but the city didn’t move expeditiously in making those necessary improvements,” Mikulina says. “The city was warned in 2004 that that particular force main was in crisis situation, and nothing was happening.”

Donna Wong, executive director of Hawai‘i Thousand Friends, also gives Hannemann poor marks. “What has happened pretty much speaks for itself—the sewage spills continue and, [last October], the state Department of Health fined the city because of the odor problem at the Kailua Wastewater Treatment Plant, which has persisted for years,” she says. “We are disappointed that the administration has not taken a more active role in protecting our near-shore waters from sewage spills.”


The Problem:
For the past 20 years, the Waimanalo Gulch landfill has served as the only municipal trash dump on O‘ahu. Leeward Coast residents—upset over living with the odor, litter and blight for so long—have continually urged the city to close the landfill. In 2003, before Hannemann became mayor, the council finally agreed, pledging to shut down the dump by 2008.

When the state Department of Health fined the city $2.8 million last February for 18 violations at the landfill—from exceeding trash height limits to failing to cover trash with soil daily—it only upped pressure on the council to keep that promise. Within days, the council ordered Hannemann to close the landfill by 2008. The mayor vetoed the bill, noting that the council didn’t have any better ideas of what to do with the trash. Instead, Hannemann sought to keep the landfill open for another 15 years, until 2023.

Council members and other community groups have also slammed Hannemann’s cancellation of the city’s curbside recycling program, which was proposed by the Harris administration.

Last year, Hannemann and the city council squabbled over the future of the Waimanalo Gulch landfill after the state Department of Health fined the city $2.8 million for environmental violations at the site. photo: Dennis oda, courtesy of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin

The Mayor Says:
“To those who want us to close the landfill, I say, ‘Where do we go?’” Hannemann asks. “There’s no other alternative.”

To help offset the burden to Wai‘anae residents, Hannemann proposed a “community benefits plan” that would give at least $2 million to the area for community projects and park improvements.

As for recycling, the mayor says the city is already doing a great job. About 70 percent of the 3,000 tons of municipal waste produced daily on O‘ahu already goes to the city’s HPOWER plant, which combusts materials such as plastic and newspaper and uses the heat to produce electricity, he notes.

“Some people don’t see waste-to-energy as a form of recycling, but we have to convince the public that it is,” Hannemann says. “If people are willing to accept the value of HPOWER, they’ll realize that we’re doing a better job than they think.”

Although Hannemann didn’t plan to resurrect the city’s curbside recycling program anytime soon, he may have no choice. In the November election, more than two-thirds of voters voted to make curbside recycling a function of the city administration.

Critics say:
“For environmental issues, if I were to give him an overall grade, I couldn’t decide between a D- and an F,” says the Sierra Club’s Mikulina. “We have a solid waste crunch on this island, and what has he done but cancel the curbside collection program?”

Councilman Gary Okino says Hannemann needs to come up with a long-term solid-waste plan for the city. “The mayor’s approach is kind of weak,” he says. “He’s not moving fast enough to institute new technologies, expand the capabilities to burn trash or reduce what goes into the landfill.”

In the meantime, Wai‘anae residents continue to put up with the landfill in their community. For many of them, the $2 million benefits package is not worth living next to a dump for another 15 years.

“We want him to get that landfill the heck out of our community,” says Maeda Timson, chairwoman of the Makakilo-Kapolei-Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board. “We have people who live right next to it—it’s unbelievable. A $2 million benefits package is like pennies—you can’t even build a community center with that.”


The Problem:

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