Honolulu is going to get a new mayor this fall.
Honolulu is going to get a new mayor this fall. Due to term limitations, Mayor Jeremy Harris can no longer run, so the job is open to a fresh face for the first time in a decade.
As this election year unfolds, we’re bound to hear a lot about who the next mayor might be—who is running, how much are they raising, who is ahead in the polls. But before all that begins, we thought this would be a good time to step back and ask a deeper question. We’re the public, we’re hiring for the position of mayor, candidates for the job are starting to emerge. This is the time to ask, What do we want out of this person? What do we want our next mayor to do?
We put that very question to community groups, neighborhood boards, business associations, even a couple of applicants for the job of mayor. The result is a kind of position description for a most demanding job. From what we’ve been told, the next mayor of Honolulu must:
1. Sweat the small stuff
It came up in interview after interview: If there’s one thing the next mayor of Honolulu needs to do, it’s get back to basics. “Public safety, the police and fire departments, roads, health and sanitation, those are the core functions of government,” says Lowell Kalapa, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, a 30-year veteran of watchdogging local politicians. “Our last mayor has focused on the icing, not the cake.”
As an example, Kalapa mentions the great pothole crisis of this past winter, when heavy rains disintegrated our already ragged roads. This forced the current mayor to authorize some $2.5 million in emergency roadwork. “But if the roads had been repaved on a 17-year cycle, as they should have been, we wouldn’t have had the mess,” insists Kalapa. Think about all the money in car registration fees and vehicle weight taxes we’ve been paying all these years. “What has the city been doing with that money, if the potholes are still there?”
Then there are the sewers, which apparently are in as, ahem, crappy a condition as the roads. “The Environmental Protection Agency has given us a deadline of 2005 to upgrade the Sand Island sewage facility, or the city is going to be put under a federal consent decree,” says Kalapa. The city has known about this, but, instead of fixing the problem, has actually been raiding the sewer fund just to keep the city operating.
“Soccer fields and Brunch on the Beach make for nice campaign materials,” says Kalapa. “But sometimes a mayor just has to say, No!”
Also pressing for the city to simplify is Dick Rowland, president of the Grassroot Institute, a public policy analysis institute. “I think the next mayor ought to carefully define the core functions of the city and focus on those,” he says. “That means stopping a lot of what the city has been doing that isn’t any of its business.” The result, he argues, should be lower taxes and a streamlined, more efficient government.
One of the problems is that the city has overextended itself, says former city councilman Mufi Hannemann (who, of course, wants the job of mayor). Debt service is now quickly overtaking public safety as the No. 1 annual expense. “This is no position for the city to be in,” he says. “The next mayor of Honolulu needs to know the difference between nice-to-have’ projects and need-to-have’ projects. The roads have to be maintained, the parks, the sewers. People want to know that when they call 911, emergency workers are going to show up.”
One last example of city overreaching comes from state Sen. Sam Slom: the new Lunalilo Home Road median strip in Hawaii Kai. “Everyone who came to testify testified against it, the neighborhood board opposed it unanimously and the mayor went ahead and built it anyway,” says Slom. “The next mayor of Honolulu needs to understand that, while entertainment events and new trees may be nice, it’s important to take care of core responsibilities.”
OK, the foregoing folks have certain political axes to grind. But they weren’t the only ones to emphasize that our next mayor better sweat the small stuff. Jim Tollefson, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, also thinks the next mayor needs to take care of “basic infrastructure.” Says Tollefson, the next mayor must be able to prioritize. “Many things will need to be done, [so] the new mayor will need to set priorities, say no to some nice-to-have things and focus on what needs to be done.”
Potholes may be popping up county-wide, but some city neighborhoods are plagued with all sorts of aging infrastructure problems, neighborhoods such as downtown Honolulu itself. Lynn Matusow, chair of the downtown neighborhood board, has a list: The city’s expensive security cameras in Chinatown still don’t all work; a new park—20 years in development—still has no playground equipment; blackouts and brownouts are common; dens of criminal activity still thrive on blocks of Hotel Street; the streets need repairs and better lighting. “The city does everything for show, then never pays to maintain it,” she says. “We need to talk about maintenance and not glitz.”
2. Mind the Money
No matter who insists on a back-to-basics goal for the next mayor, their reason that this is so important is always the same—money. The city spends too much with borrowed money, and the result is that the city is in tough financial times. “Borrowing money to pay for road maintenance drives me up a wall,” says Rowland. “But that’s what this city does.” If the city is not borrowing, it’s raising taxes. The City Council gave car owners a Christmas present of higher fees to register their vehicles—not to cover the wear and tear those vehicles cause to the roads, but to fund raises for police officers.
The job for the next mayor, according to those we spoke with, isn’t just to save money, but to better account for spending. “The next mayor has to tell the truth about city finances and be accountable,” insists Slom.
Hannemann says the city’s financial picture is needlessly cloudy. “Some council members say we’re in dire straits while the administration says we’re in good shape. Which is it?” asks Hannemann. “The next mayor can solve this by getting a comprehensive audit to figure out our finances.”
Kalapa is big on fiscal accountability: It’s the mission of his nonprofit group. In his view, the next mayor needs to be strong willed enough to use the real property taxes it has at its disposal to pay the bills. He points out that, in the constitutional convention of 1978, the counties told the state, “If you give us real property taxation power, we’ll never come back to you for more money. Well, Mayor Frank Fasi came back the very next year,” Kalapa recalls. The problem with the real property tax, for politicians, is that property owners are involved, aware citizens who vote. Consequently, mayors will beg, borrow or steal the money through any other mechanism before they will raise that tax to cover the amount they actually spend.
By the mid-’80s, the counties turned to the state for grants, with Honolulu scoring $70 million in 1989, when the state was flush with a surplus.
Then the counties got the Transient Accommodations Tax, paid by every tourist to book a hotel room here. Now Honolulu is seeking its own excise tax. In January, Harris even proposed switching vehicle registration fees—a tax on vehicle owners—from a weight-based tax to a personal property tax, to raise more money. In other words, people who buy expensive cars will be taxed more. “That’s exactly what former California Gov. Gray Davis proposed,” says Kalapa. We all know what happened to Davis.
That’s the begging and stealing. Then there’s the borrowing. “By the city administration’s own projections, debt service will be more than 20 percent of the budget by 2008,” says Kalapa. This is the kind of number that has people screaming for the next mayor to cut back on frills. “At one time, Harris had 19 community Vision Teams spending $2 million each on things like neighborhood markers,” says Kalapa. The city has cut back considerably, but we will be paying for the loans on the markers, with interest, for years to come.
Then there are people who think that accountability means something deeper than sound financial planning. Criminal charges have been filed against 15 people for illegal contributions to Harris’ campaign fund. Some of those people were major city contractors. No direct pay-to-play link to the mayor has been publicly disclosed by investigators, but the possibility taints Honolulu Hale. What, after all, is the point of making illegal donations to a politician if you won’t somehow be rewarded for it later?
Something has to be done about this, says Duke Bainum, the other former city councilman who would like to be mayor himself. “It would appear that the next mayor of Honolulu needs to take care of the projected $100-million budget shortfall, reduce crime, deal with transportation, create jobs and improve the economy,” he says. “But none of these can be tackled effectively until we change the way things are done at city hall. The next mayor needs to sweep out the underlying patterns of corruption present in every illegal campaign contribution and special-interest deal in the city. This is no simple task, and the city has suffered for years from a system that rewards special interests.”
How to go about it? For starters, Bainum recommends that the next mayor immediately freeze all significant city contracts for two or three weeks and have them reviewed by an independent panel to make sure they were awarded without bias.
3. Try new things
Since some city problems seem intractable, the next mayor of Honolulu should consider some innovative thinking. He or she might not even have to think very hard. Just listen. The public will not only tell the mayor what problems to solve, but how to solve them.
Consider the seemingly endless problem of park maintenance. People have been complaining for years that city park restrooms are dumpy and the grounds poorly maintained. Rowland suggests privatizing some of the parks. This would not just be good for the private sector, he says, but could solve a structural problem that keeps government services from excelling. “Running the parks puts the city in the position of both providing the service and evaluating how well that service is provided. When the same people do both of those things, it doesn’t work,” he argues.
The city ought to be in the evaluation business, not the operations business—a natural role for elected officials who are supposed to look out for our interests. “Let’s take the money the city is spending to not maintain the parks very well and offer it to a private entity on the condition that it deliver the results we want: clean restrooms, customer satisfaction reports.” If that entity fails, the city takes the park—and the money—back.
Another longstanding problem for the city is homelessness. As Lynn Maunakea, executive director of the Institute for Human Services (IHS) points out, homelessness, for many of the people in her shelters, is a real estate problem. “We have a housing subsidy we can use to get 23 people into rentals, but the rental market is so tight, we can only find places for 17 of them,” she explains. “We can’t solve homelessness if there is no housing.”
IHS is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It has two shelters, a men’s facility in Iwilei and a women’s and family shelter on Dillingham Boulevard. Maunakea says that landlords would rather not rent to her clients if they can avoid it. She says the City Council had approved $6 million for homeless assistance. “I would love to see the next mayor help with homelessness by applying that money toward a housing project. It would reduce the number of people who are chronically homeless. The more [people] we can get out of the shelters, the more we can create some movement.”
Innovative ideas could finally revitalize Chinatown—you know, the lively downtown culture and arts scene we’ve been promised for decades, which never seems to really arrive? Once again, it’s a real estate problem, this time one the city can solve without spending any money. “We need the next mayor to get a change in the Chinatown Special District ordinance to allow loft living in Chinatown,” says Matusow. “All the upstairs spaces are empty now, because the law limits them to property owners and caretakers. So we’ve got an arts and culture district with no place for artists to live. They want to live above their galleries.”
Matusow says a number of housing options in downtown Honolulu are on hold because of such zoning issues. “Senior housing and condo projects are on hold now, because the city is trying to expand the Chinatown Special District. It’s awful the way they are holding these projects hostage. People want to live downtown, they’re tired of being a one-hour commute away. Families want to live here, too, but we need bigger, three-bedroom apartments for them.”
4. Have a plan
The next mayor of Honolulu had better not think he or she can just wing it. People want the next mayor to have a plan. Just ask Dick Poirier, chair of the Mililani/Waipio/Melemanu neighborhood board. “What we need is a real urban-growth policy,” he says. “Another 20,000 housing units have been approved for this area and there’s not enough infrastructure. Roads are absolutely terrible, it takes up to an hour and a half to get to town. It doesn’t make sense.”
In fact, if there’s one thing people want the next mayor to have a plan for, it’s transportation. But good luck, future mayors—everyone wants you to plan completely different things.
“We had long supported the mayor’s Bus Rapid Transit,” says Poirier, “simply because it was the only viable thing to get us to town. But, basically, it’s been derailed with the governor’s plan for rail.”
Kalapa thinks the next mayor, working with the governor, should look more closely at demographics when planning for transportation, especially if they’re planning on dropping mad cash into mass transit. “Our population is aging, our work force will shrink. So who will be driving, commuting and using mass transit?”
Maybe the next mayor just needs to dust off the plans we already made to solve the transportation problem. “I thought we were making a second city in Kapolei,” Kalapa reminds us. “Redirecting money to mass transit to get people into town defeats that purpose.”
Some folks would like a vision to come with a plan. “The first thing for the next mayor to do is provide a vision for the city,” says Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Sierra Club Hawaii. “A broad, forward-looking perspective of how best to enable smart growth, create a mass transit system, increase the livability of our communities and balance the environmental constraints on an island. How do we protect the open spaces and agricultural lands in Central Oahu? How can we reduce Honolulu’s dependence on expensive, imported crude oil? How do we create the attractive communities that create a sense of place and increase our quality of life?”
It seems like a lot to ask of anyone, but it would help if the next mayor knew some answers to these questions.
5. Take care of businesses
Hawaii isn’t an easy place in which to run a business, and, while that is primarily due to state-level politics, some people think the next mayor of Honolulu could do some good at the city level. “The next mayor needs to be focused on the economy,” says Hannemann. “Honolulu is where 80 percent of the state’s people live, where 80 percent of the taxes are collected. It makes sense to partner with the state, do more with creating new jobs.” Hannemann thinks the city would benefit from getting closer to colleges in town, nurturing smart people who can make a difference.
For Slom, the economic success of citizens is inseparable from political success. “A mayor needs to understand the financial capabilities of our citizens,” he says. “We’ll have a stronger and more vibrant county if individuals can make more economic choices of their own.”
Plenty of people have items for the next mayor’s To Do list. Carol Pregill, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, has one big don’t. “We don’t want any of the additional taxes the city is proposing,” she says.
Her organization represents nearly 200 businesses, with a total of about 2,000 storefronts in the Islands. Most are small businesses, with 50 or fewer employees. “Government needs to get out of the way: We’re in an expansion mode in business. We see it in retail, we’re starting to see it in construction. Honolulu Community College is overflowing with students in the trades, that’s exciting, we haven’t seen that at that level.” Pregill thinks the city needs to find ways to fuel the expansion.
The city already has some successful programs to build on, she says. “It has an economic development program that works with small business, it’s very good on a grassroots level, working one-to-one with businesses looking to expand.” Our current mayor has been very good at redeveloping Waikiki, which the next mayor should continue doing. “The Neighbor Islands seem stronger with their products,” Pregill says, “but we have a lot going in Waikiki and we need to continue to make it fresh and new. Private owners in Waikiki, hotels, retailers, etc., are working hard to upgrade their properties. Working with the Waikiki Improvement Association is important.”
Pregill knows Honoluluans get tired of hearing how much attention Waikiki should get, but points out that the small district has a huge multiplier effect. “We saw it after Sept. 11. When people lost their Waikiki jobs, other industries also suffered when those people cut back, even people such as dentists and contractors. We saw the losses in advertising, public relations—when revenues aren’t being generated quickly in Waikiki, everyone suffers.”
6. Be the boss
Public safety is the city’s most important function and the Honolulu Police Department is the agency we turn to most often for that safety. However, complaints about HPD cropped up often in our interviews. They were always introduced with, “The police do a good job, but …”
But sometimes they don’t. For downtown neighborhood board chair Matusow, one problem is police working special events on the city’s overtime budget, when the event sponsors should be paying the cops to work off-duty. For C.O. “Andy” Anderson, chair of the Waipahu neighborhood board, police officers sometimes lack initiative. “If a resident sees an abandoned car and calls the police, they’ll come and cite it,” he says. “But otherwise, they’ll drive right by it and ignore it. They shouldn’t wait for people to complain about problems.”
Such complaints suggest a common desire for somone to to supervise the department better.
It couldn’t hurt. Last fall, the attorney general’s office reported that HPD is solving fewer crimes than ever. In 2002, 57,000 major crimes were reported, but police cleared only 5,000 cases—91.3 percent of the major crimes went unsolved. It’s the worst clearance rate since anyone started keeping track in 1975, and the rate has been declining steadily since 1998. Worse still, Mainland cities with populations similar to Honolulu’s have an average clearance rate of almost 16 percent, nearly twice Honolulu’s.
When citizens grumble, says the Grassroot Institute’s Rowland, police shrug and say, “We can’t be everywhere,” as he heard an officer tell one unhappy burglary victim at a neighborhood board meeting. “I don’t see why we should put up with that,” says Rowland. “The next mayor’s mandate should be: The police can never say we can’t do the job.”
There you have it. The position description for the next mayor. Any takers for the job? Applications will be accepted in September.