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.

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.

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.

HM: You say you want voters to pay for rail, but you also want to cut costs in other areas of government, specifically with staffing. How can you sell that to people who don’t want the rail line?

PC: You have to take a bigger view on this and understand what transit-oriented development brings to the table. It’s going to give us the opportunity to give people first-time homes out in Kapolei. We’ve run out of that here, in the core; people are lucky if they can buy a condominium. And look at this as being a way of transporting students from campus to campus in the UH system, and people will have the opportunity now to move from as far out as Kapolei to get up to the university in a reasonable period of time. Every other place served by a large and effective transit system has a better-educated and a more mobile workforce.

HM: Will the city be doing anything o induce businesses to move out to the west side? Kapolei was the traffic solution for Honolulu. We’ve had Kapolei now for a couple of decades, trying to become a city, but, so far, people are still driving in from west and central O‘ahu to work in town or Waikīkī.

PC: You’ve got to figure out what will actually bring the people out to the west. In terms of urban planning, what happens is you first have to have the population base, then they’ve got to want to have services and goods they can purchase, then after that you can start moving government in, and then businesses follow. It’s already happening with the advent of the Kroc Center [The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Kapolei] and with the advent of the University of Hawai‘i at West O‘ahu. Once that starts building up, you’re going to need sewers, you’re going to need fire stations, you’re going to need ambulance services, all those things will follow. And the key infrastructure, in my opinion, is this rail project, because it will tie it all together.

HM: Mufi Hannemann took heat from former Gov. Linda Lingle for insisting homelessness was a state issue, and the two offices went back and forth on it. What’s your position?

PC: Homelessness is everyone’s issue. It’s certainly a city issue. Are we ever going to completely get rid of homelessness? No, as long as we’ve got people who are mentally ill, drug addicts or who want to live that particular lifestyle, with no rules that apply to them. The only thing you can do is control it. Part of that means isolating them from places where they shouldn’t be, which includes taking up sidewalk space that belongs to the public, taking up camping space and turning it into basically a waste zone. If that means putting safe communities or safe shelters—or whatever you want to call them—somewhere, so be it.

HM: Homelessness is just one of the issues the city and state will have to work closely on. How do you envision your working relationship with Governor Abercrombie?

PC:  : I’m extremely hopeful, because he’s not going anywhere. This is his end job. I hope not to be going anywhere, except out the door if I’m not reelected. If that’s my attitude and that’s his attitude, you don’t have that friction that has always existed between the state and the mayor. All our last mayors had what I like to call “governor envy.” They wanted to be “gov” in the worst way; certainly that was true for Mayor Hannemann, I don’t know about Mayor [Eileen] Anderson and we know that Fearless Frank [Fasi] wanted it more than anything on the planet Earth.

I don’t want to go there.  I don’t want to go to Washington, D.C., I don’t want to go to Washington Place. Period. So my hope is that’s going to give us a real advantage over the relationship that existed between the governor and the mayor before. I don’t think we’ll agree on everything, but I think it gives us a chance.

HM: Since you won an election to finish the last two years of Hannemann’s term, you’d be eligible to run up for two more full terms. [Jeremy] Harris did that, he was mayor for 10 years. Conceivably you could be mayor for a decade.

PC:  There’s nothing I’d like more.

HM: What would the city look like after a decade of Peter Carlisle as mayor?

PC: I hope it looks cleaner; I hope it looks like the city of tomorrow it could be; I hope it looks far more friendly for those of us who live here; I hope it continues to be a place where we not only have tourists coming but we’re a good location for businesses, for recreational tourism, for athleticism. Genuinely become the Geneva of the Pacific, if we could.  If APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] goes off well, maybe that’s a possibility. I would like to see that.

While that is a major concern, I don’t want to think what I would look like after 10 years. It’s frightening enough already. By that time it will be terrifying.