Ernie Martin‘s election to the Honolulu City Council came down to 47 votes.

It was by that slim margin1 that the then-director of the Department of Community Services eked out a win in the District 2 race.

Seven months later, he is poised to become the City Council’s chairman.

Martin’s ascent to the helm of the council comes as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is threatening to recoup $7.9 million in funds that federal investigators say Martin’s former department mismanaged.

Martin has refused to answer questions related to the federal investigation, even after the current director referred Civil Beat to Martin. An aide for Martin said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on his previous role, now that he is a council member.

He has also been mum about a fact-finding rail trip he and City Council Vice Chair Breene Harimoto — who will be replaced by Ikaika Anderson under Martin — took in April, citing lawyer’s concerns about two rail-related protests against the city. Pressed for more details, Martin said he had “no prerogative over this issue of contracts” and said he had “constituents’ best interest at heart.”

Martin has also kept quiet thus far about his rise to power on the council. He refused to speak with reporters after outgoing Chairman Nestor Garcia held a press conference about the council reorganization Wednesday.

Martin left City Hall early, and issued a four-sentence-long statement that said he is “humbled” by Garcia’s confidence in him.

Martin’s silence about the council shake-up is a way to show deference to the man he is replacing, his aide said. While his new vice chair touts Martin as more committed to transparency than his predecessor, his approach of late has been to talk when he wants to talk, but to ignore questions he doesn’t want to answer.

Aloha Style With an Edge

Martin, 51, is an affable and laid-back presence at City Hall. He began working for the city as a groundskeeper trainer more than 20 years ago, and left his job running the city’s Department of Community Services when he was elected in November. Soon thereafter, Garcia put Martin in charge of the council’s powerful Budget Committee.

As Budget chairman, Martin has made it a habit to start the meetings he leads by playfully ribbing the colleagues who wear sport coats instead of aloha shirts. He often draws laughter from those who come to testify before him.

On Twitter, as erniemartin808, he occasionally posts sunny updates about things like weekend plans and community events. On Facebook, he lists activities and interests including Hawaii politics, Save the Sea Turtles International and a group called “Commit to Get Off Your Lazy Ass and Vote Democratic on November 2, 2010.”

Martin has a serious side, too. He is adept at disagreeing with someone without ever losing his cool or changing the tone in his voice.

Martin is an attorney, and chooses his words carefully. But when he speaks up, he makes sure he is understood. One recent example was in a special Budget Committee meeting last month.

At the time, a member of Mayor Peter Carlisle‘s administration was describing the council’s intentions with regard to oversight of the new Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation‘s budget. It wasn’t until Martin stepped in that a tense back-and-forth between city Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka and multiple council members ended.

“It behooves the administration to not testify as to what the council’s intent was or is,” Martin said, his tone measured but stern. “I would ask that you refrain from trying to interpret what the council’s intent was on this particular matter.”

Many of Martin’s fellow council members commended his willingness to stand up to the Carlisle administration throughout the budget process. As Budget chair, Martin reinstated tens of millions of dollars for improvements to city roads that Carlisle had cut. Martin also challenged Carlisle by introducing a City Council version of the first budget for HART, the new semi-autonomous transit agency that is taking over management of the city’s $5.3 billion rail project on July 1.

Carlisle has threatened to veto the council’s version of that HART budget, and Martin has been straightforward about the council’s willingness to take the Carlisle administration to court over the matter.

But there have been complaints about Martin, too. Some City Council members said that he disseminated budget amendment guidelines about how much money council members could add back into the budget, then exceeded the suggested cap with costly projects and improvements in his district.

The Election

Martin represents the North Shore. He beat John White in the general election with 11,056 votes, versus 11,009. In his campaign, he emphasized “local roots, strong family values.”

Several colleagues at the city contributed to his campaign.

Planning and Permitting Director David Tanoue gave $200, former Community Services director Debbie Morikawa donated $1,000, former Parks and Recreation Director Lester Chang donated $150, Transportation Director Yoshioka gave Martin $125, and Design and Construction Director Collins Lam gave $300.

Lori Okami, who helped run Martin’s campaign and has a planning contract with the city, gave Martin $600. Kimberly Ribellia, Martin’s senior aide, gave $125.

Martin also got significant support from labor, including:

  • $4,000 from the Hawaii Operating Engineers Industry
  • $3,000 from ILWU 142, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union
  • $2,000 from the local ironworkers union
  • $1,000 from PSC Consultant, a group that consults to the electricity industry
  • $750 from Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 630
  • $750 from Lester Fukuda of Hawaii Pacific Engineers, which is contracted to design the city’s rail stations
  • $200 from Hawaii Teamsters Local 996

Martin’s ties to unions have been a sore point with those who question his independence.

Martin was the sole City Council member who explicitly said he did not see a conflict between Garcia’s role as council chairman and his $60,000-a-year part-time job with the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce.

Others were either strongly critical, or careful not to disparage Garcia while still distancing themselves from his decision. Martin is an attorney but says the council takes up all of his time, and that he would not take any clients that do business with the city.

In the past, Garcia and Martin have referred to each other as longtime friends. Garcia made a point to tell reporters that Martin wished him “good luck,” before he left the City Council offices to speak publicly about the council reorganization.

Martin did not stand by his side, but later — in the statement issued by an aide — expressed gratitude for Garcia’s “continued friendship.”

In July, if council members approve Martin as their new chair, it will be up to Martin to determine where Garcia fits into the new hierarchy of city leadership.

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