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Meet the Mayor: Peter Carlisle

We sit down for a Q&A with new Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle about his plans to trim government, build rail, fix the sewers and clean up the city's clutter.


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Illustration: Joe Ciardiello


HM: Your last job, as prosecutor, was to put away bad guys. Now your job is to keep the lights on. With that transition, has there been anything that’s surprised you?

PC: What’s surprised me is how well prepared the prosecutor’s job made me. That sounds strange, but, frankly, the approach to issues is pretty much the same. Something comes across the desk, you have to analyze it and look at the evidence that the person is guilty or might not be guilty. That’s what you need to be able to do in this job, too.

HM: How do you foresee your working relationship with the City Council?

PC: I’m very hopeful. We have so many new people, the dynamic may be different than it was with some of the people who have led a somewhat questionable past, the top of the list being [former] councilmember [Rod] Tam.

HM: Your first mayoral crisis, so to speak, might have been the cancellation of the craft fair that bears the mayor’s name. What did you take away from that issue, knowing as we do that you weren’t aware it was being canceled?

PC: It’s a very different management style that this administration brings in than the previous administration. We’re genuinely believers in delegation of authority and allowing other people to make decisions and discuss matters with the media without running to us every time that they do something. When you give people that kind of latitude, they have to know what some of the restraints are.

HM: Do you think it indicates a lack of coordination between offices that you’ve inherited?

PC: No, I think it’s a matter of not being given the opportunity to run their own shop in a fashion that’s consistent with the policies of this administration. That means that something I assumed was obvious, wasn’t. That’s my fault more than it’s their fault. We’re starting brand new at 30 days into the operation and they’ve been told things are going to change dramatically and that may not be enough guidance for them to actually understand what they need to do that’s different.

HM: You said recently that furloughs were invented by the devil and should go back to the purgatory from whence they came.

PC: Unequivocally true.

HM: Now, who is the devil you’re talking about? Who started them?

PC: The statement by the former mayor was, “Let’s give furloughs a chance.” It’s a chance I don’t think they should have been given. The furloughs were a bad idea in the school system; that became painfully apparent very quickly. The mistake is giving people more vacation time as opposed to saving money by making things more efficient or by reducing pay, if necessary.

HM: The furloughs under the previous administration were supposed to save around $26 million. If you take away furloughs, how will you replace that $26 million savings?

PC:  First off, is overtime being abused? Then take a look at fees that could be raised for services. We’d save a lot of money by upgrading all the parking meters to the new ones being used at the zoo, which are far more effective. There’s a wealth of things that you can do by just looking at the way things are operating.

HM: Are you looking at salaries?

PC:  You have to look at the salaries. It’s impossible to look at the costs without looking at salaries because that’s the biggest chunk. Across-the-board pay cuts, reducing overtime, prosecuting people for overtime abuses when it’s criminal in nature.

HM: Those seem like very hard decisions to make, especially in this economic climate. Are you prepared to make the tough cuts?

PC:  Yes. You can’t do this to be somebody’s friend. Everything we do in government that’s inefficient is taking money out of the private sector, and those are the people being bled to death by an oversized government. They’re looking at the dead end and they’re looking at welfare and they’re looking at losing their homes. Is that really worth giving government workers unlimited overtime, unlimited vacation time, unlimited sick leave? Every ounce of that is coming from somebody else’s pocket. The people who are suffering right now are in the private sector.

HM: When it comes to the teacher furloughs, they seem to have originated with HSTA saying, well, if we’re going to get paid less, then we’ll work less. Is the city confronting that kind of attitude with the unionized city workers?

PC: You think that might be a possibility? We’re coming on up to some serious negotiations right now with the UPW, HGEA and SHOPO. There are strong issues that are going to make it very important for those people who have a vested interest in benefits and in an oversized government to either give concessions or we’re going to be at loggerheads very quickly.

HM: To go back to the issue of city debt, under Mufi Hannemann, Honolulu made the Business Insider list of Most Bankrupt Cities as fifth in the nation, right behind New York City at $370 per capita in debt. And it looks like there’s going to be a $98 million shortfall this fiscal year. So do you have any plans yet to address that beyond the kind of nips and cuts you’ve been talking about?

PC:  No, but we’re going to get a handle on it and address it. We cannot continue to mount debt. Period. So if we get to the point where there has to be a reduction in force, then that’s something we’ll confront. And we’re also going to have to look at changing some of the laws as they’ve related to bumping rights [etc.]. Because you’re not doing this in an efficient fashion; [when jobs are eliminated] you’re bumping somebody from a higher level pay to go down at the same level pay and do less work and letting somebody else from the bottom go who might be better at that work than the person who’s higher up. There’s all these catch-22s with what we’ve got right now … which many people feel is so completely skewed in favor of the union that you can never win. So, if that’s true, then we have to change it. And that means changing the laws, and going to the Legislature.

Kauai has actually looked at all these things and done an excellent job of reducing the cost of government. Where other counties are looking at deficits, they’ve got a surplus.

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