City Council members’ frustration over how City Council Chairman Nestor Garcia and Vice Chair Breene Harimoto handled appointments to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation was a “major factor” in a leadership shake-up at the council, according to City Council member Ikaika Anderson.

Anderson confirmed to Civil Beat that he would be the vice chair under Chairman Ernie Martin if the reorganization, first revealed by Civil Beat Wednesday morning, goes through.

“The majority of members feel we need to go another direction, that we need more openness, we need more inclusiveness — in particular with the Transportation Committee — that we weren’t seeing before,” Anderson said. “Ernie will be a lot more inclusive. Ernie will seek the opinions of a majority of council members. I think it would be in the best interest of everyone.”

In a strange twist, at a press conference at Honolulu Hale Wednesday afternoon, Garcia said that he initiated the reorganization that will lead to him losing his leadership position. No one else from the council was present. A spokeswoman for Martin said he wouldn’t talk about the reorganization until it was final.

“I am about to volunteer to step down as the chair of the Honolulu City Council, which is unprecedented in its history,” Garcia told reporters. If council members approve the change, it will go into effect in July.

Garcia repeatedly emphasized the decision to step down was his. He said he had been considering it for some time, and denied having heard any frustration over the direction of the council from his colleagues.

After the news conference, Civil Beat pressed Garcia for more details, asking why he didn’t share the full story.

“That’s the story I need to stand by today,” Garcia told Civil Beat. “In time, you will hear the rest of it.”

Anderson would not say who would helm the Transportation Committee, a decision that would be up to the council chair, but says oversight of transit-oriented development would shift back to the Zoning Committee.

“I’ll retain chairmanship of the Zoning committee, and TOD will be returned to the Zoning Committee from the Transportation Committee where it was,” Anderson said. “I’ve never felt it belonged to Transportation.”

HART Frustrations Spurred Reorganization

Anderson and other council members have repeatedly complained that the process by which Harimoto and Garcia appointed HART board members was not transparent enough, and expressed frustration that Harimoto announced the council’s nominees before the full council vetted them.

Each of the nine City Council members submitted nominees to the board, and Harimoto and Garcia selected the council’s three nominees: Damien Kim, Keslie Hui and Ivan Lui-Kwan.

Harimoto has repeatedly defended the move as “very open.”

“We allowed each member to submit a nominee,” Harimoto said. “We didn’t have to do that, but we did. Because we could only select three, we decided as a starting point to put three names into the resolution so it would be an open process. As with any resolution, any member is free to offer amendments. If they chose to select someone else, by all means they were free to submit the change.”

Harimoto says it “would make no sense” to start by putting all nine council nominees on a resolution, which would then be amended to include only three names. He also said city lawyers warned him about releasing all nine nominees to the public. The only other option, he says, would have been to leave the names blank, which would provide little information to the public.

“In the past, there are instances where the resolution would come forward with a blank, so no one would know who the council was thinking of until the third reading on the floor when the names would mysteriously appear,” Harimoto said.

But Anderson remains firm in his criticism of how the council’s appointment of HART board members played out.

“That process was vetted by one individual,” Anderson said. “I didn’t feel included. Ann Kobayashi has mentioned she didn’t feel included. Tom Berg mentioned he didn’t feel included. And it’s not that we as council members didn’t feel included. It’s that, because we didn’t feel included, the people who we represent weren’t included. The process could have been a whole lot more inclusive, a whole lot more open. Looking at the reorg, that’s the major thing.”

HART Causing Other Problems for Council

The shake-up comes at a time when the City Council’s role with regard to the city’s $5.3 billion rail project is already in flux. HART officially begins its work on July 1.

Martin and Anderson have been among the most vocal council members in the fight with Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle‘s administration about whether the council has the right to oversee HART’s budget. Both men have been straightforward about their willingness to sue the administration to retain council oversight.

As budget chair, Martin led the council in amending and passing a council version of HART’s first spending plan. Carlisle is in China until June 20, which is the deadline for him to veto the council’s HART budget.

While Harimoto has expressed frustration with the administration’s handling of HART, and Garcia has stood behind the council on the issue, neither has challenged Carlisle to the extent that Martin and Anderson have.

Three other City Council members who have indicated support for reorganization — Kobayashi, Romy Cachola and Tom Berg — are also among the more fiery council members in their style of questioning.

The change in leadership could signal a more combative dynamic between the city’s executive and legislative branches.

Although Anderson and Martin are clearly taking charge, it’s also apparent that they want the leadership transition to be smooth. Martin refused to speak with reporters until after Garcia had the opportunity to comment, and Anderson repeatedly emphasized that the reorganization was not personal.

Martin has not been responsive to questions about the reorganization or a federal investigation of the city department he previously led.

“The reorg isn’t an assault against Nestor Garcia, and I really don’t want this to be portrayed that he is being removed,” Anderson said. “This isn’t a grievance against Breene Harimoto or a grievance against Nestor Garcia. We want to move the council toward inclusiveness and collaboration for all members, rather than have one or two members make the decisions.”

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