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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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HM: Nationwide, cities and even states are looking at bankruptcy, largely because of what they owe on pensions and health benefits for their own employees. How is Honolulu doing in that regard?  

PC: We are rapidly approaching the same disaster. The biggest one is healthcare benefits. You can get yourself to a point with healthcare benefits where the gross product of the state would be going to healthcare benefits. And you can’t allow that to happen.

HM: Now city workers get healthcare for life after how many years on the job?

PC:  It was 10 at one point, now it’s up to 25, I think. So, it’s coming, it’s changing. Is there a reason why nobody in the private sector has the type of guaranteed medical benefits that we in the public sector have? Yeah, it’s because they need to keep their doors open and they don’t want to go bankrupt.

HM: Let’s get into the “nuts and bolts” of the office. One of the less glamorous sides is dealing with waste.

PC:  Yeah, but believe it or not, that’s a very exciting thing right now. I mean, it really is. Garbage is gold.

HM: What’s your plan for the mess?

PC:  We’ve got the third boiler coming up at H-Power that’s going to make a huge difference. Right now we generate 900,000 tons of solid waste and can burn 600,000 tons of it to convert to energy, leaving a surplus of 300,000. Once the new boiler comes on, all of that can go there and more. That will reduce the waste going into Waimānalo Gulch landfill.

HM: What about wastewater?

PC:  We’ve got a huge issue because of the consent decree [negotiated with the EPA to upgrade Honolulu’s wastewater systems]. Our plan is to comply with the consent decree because we’ve got to get ourselves up to snuff in terms of maintenance of the whole system. We had a long period where they weren’t putting enough money into maintenance of the system, and the need to maintain it went up and up and up. They’ve called that “deferred maintenance.” What I would call it was negligent maintenance.

HM: Let’s jump into your views on commercial development. For instance, the City Council approved the Moana Surfrider’s plans to build closer to the shoreline than normally allowed. Do you agree with that

PC:  I think you have to take a look at competing globally for tourism and look at each project’s merits and where it’s going to be going. If that requires flexibility in zoning and it’s carefully considered when a decision was made, yes, I would support that.

HM: Saying that you’d support that project is one thing, but what is your guideline for development along Waikīkī, or in general? How much is too much?

PC: That’s an extremely fair and difficult question. If you take a look at the [Waikīkī] Beach Walk, which involved a lot of development and redevelopment, it clearly left a better product. If you don’t do that, and they have a better product elsewhere—in Asia, in Europe, on the Mainland—than we’re not going to be competitive.

The people who are in Waikīkī know the answers to these questions a lot better than some of us who aren’t there. They know what their competition is and how to attract people and make it profitable to keep jobs. I think we have to give some deference to their thoughts, knowing, as well, that they’re profit-motivated. It’s reaching a balance between being greedy on their part and what is being done to make sure that we can compete for the global tourism dollar.

HM: In 2001, the city invested $4 million to refurbish the Natatorium. The work was stopped in 2005, so now it’s been closed and locked for 30 years. What obligation do you or the city have to restore it?

PC: I’ve been given both sides of this. One side says you can’t refurbish it, you can’t make it self-sustaining; the other side says you can’t get rid of it because it’s a historic monument and you can’t lose this part of history. We’re going to have to make a decision that is consistent with what’s economically feasible and in the best interest of preserving what needs to be preserved. And that’s going to be dictated by the information we get about what kind of money will come here for it to be self-sustaining.

HM: Self-sustaining by being a draw for visitors?

PC: Or something you can keep as it was originally functioning and maintained and safe. I’m told there’s the ability to do that with funding. Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’m going to find out. Because there was a long study that was done that gave specific recommendations on what to do, and now the question is, can it be kept functioning without funds from the city?

HM: So if it doesn’t get funded by the city, you’re all for it?

PC: That’s a real easy thing to say, but that’s not fair. But, I like your thinking!

HM: Let’s delve into rail. You’ve been outspoken in your support. Now, there’s a new rail authority to propel the project forward.  Do you think it’s going to change the debate?

PC: The debate will change when the first shovel is struck. Once it becomes a project, it’s not a question of if we’re going to have the project, it’s going to be how we make sure it’s done on time and under budget. There’s going to be people who are greedy, who want to make a fortune, but we need to make absolutely certain that we find these people early. People have an obligation to speak out if they know something is going wrong; we have to make sure that people aren’t working less effectively so they can extend the project and continue getting paid.

The more we are delayed by people bent on bringing lawsuits—no matter how frivolous—the more we’re going to have the kind of problems we had with H3, which ended up with gigantic cost overruns. There are people who are willing to obstruct [rail] for their own ideology at the expense of everybody else in the community.

HM: The third-place finisher in the mayor’s race, Panos Prevedouros, did get 18 percent of the vote. Nearly one in five voters went for a career civil engineering professor instead of a career politician because of this issue. Do you feel an obligation to address them?

PC: All you have to do is listen to a real, honest engineer and not an academician who is also a politician. After I listened to someone who really does know about the project, I am convinced Panos is clueless. And will remain so. I think the driving force behind that is people don’t want to have to pay for rail, it’s not because he has some good vision or some great understanding—he doesn’t.

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