Editor's Page: Two Notes

Observations on City Council member Nestor Garcia and UH West Oahu.

Photo: Linny Morris

Honolulu’s rail project is barely under way and already it has sprouted the largest fine on a city official for ethics violations in Honolulu history. As the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported last month, city councilmember Nestor Garcia was fined $6,500 for failing to disclose that, prior to voting on 52 bills and resolutions that received testimony from the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce, he was, in fact, the paid executive director of the chamber at the time. Pretty well paid, too, at $5,000 a month.

The Star-Advertiser editorialized that Garcia should also be censured by the Council and, by the time you read this, perhaps he will have been. But to me, the fine and any censure miss the point. How was it even possible for Garcia to take a paid position with the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce while serving as a city councilmember in the first place? Garcia was essentially double-dipping as both a public representative and as a paid representative of a special interest group, one that, in this case, is pro-rail—as were Garcia’s votes. He may come by his pro-rail stance honestly and independently, as he argues, but the relationship taints every vote he ever cast on the issue.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a paid job as the head of an organization you believe in. There’s nothing wrong with voting according to your beliefs when in office. There’s something hugely wrong with doing both at the same time. Yet right now, the best ethical guideline for City Council members is, “It doesn’t matter how compromising your outside employment may be, so long as you disclose it.”

That’s just not good enough.

Our intern, Maria Kanai, and I got to tour the University of Hawaii West Oahu recently with its architect, John Hara. The campus, decades in the making, opens to students this month, and you can read more about it as an institution and as a work of architecture in Kanai’s piece.

It was a treat to walk through buildings so new, they don’t even have furniture yet. There’s all the promise of the human experience that will unfold in these spaces in the years to come—not just the learning, but all the other things that happen on a college campus. I walked through the then-bookless library and thought, this is where some people are going to meet and fall in love, where lifelong friendships are going to be made.

Hara’s design does two interesting, deliberate things. It abides by both the land and the history of its site. Buildings hug the topography, sitting at odd angles to each other. For the structures, Hara chose lines and materials that pay homage to the sugar mills that were so important to the Ewa plains in the 20th century. There’s a serene, coherent dignity to the place, totally unlike the busy, hodge-podge feel of UH Manoa.

I wondered, though, if the campus won’t accidentally become a symbol of another fading era. Between grade inflation, tuition inflation and the profound changes coming with the way education can be delivered online, the idea that we need a centralized factory to mass produce college graduates may be passing as surely as sugar mills did. If so, UH West Oahu, so difficult to achieve, may end up being the last traditional college campus Hawaii ever builds.