UPDATED 11:15 a.m. 1/3/2012

Start with a new hands-off mayor. Throw in a few pinches of inexperienced Honolulu City Council members. Let sit for 12 months. Then serve.

The finished product isn’t too filling.

Honolulu politicians had an interesting, if not productive, year. We’ve revealed our list of the best stories from the Honolulu beat, and of course there was APEC to enjoy. But the city had a slow 2011, legislatively speaking, especially considering non-election years are supposed to be when the real work gets done.

“It was a quiet year, there weren’t as many bills introduced,” Council member Ann Kobayashi told Civil Beat this week. “I guess because we have a new mayor and some new Council members.”

Kobayashi is one of the few political veterans on the Council. A majority of the members — five out of nine — were elected to their first terms in 2010, including Chair Ernie Martin. Some weren’t just new to their jobs but also had little or no previous legislative experience at all.

That inexperience turned out to be a challenge. The learning curve required members to juggle constituents’ needs, forge working relationships and test how far rookie Mayor Peter Carlisle could be pushed.

In June, for example, Carlisle and the Council wrestled over control of the budget for the new Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. That same bumpy month, members replaced Chair Nestor Garcia with Martin, a veteran of the administration but not of the Council.

The acrimony continued all the way through November, when Breene Harimoto wanted to strip a clearly agitated Tom Berg of his voting rights and Martin had to intercede.

From start to end in 2011, members struggled to find their stride.

UPDATE Their reluctance to stick their necks out too far before getting a lay of the land was obvious to Council observers. Members introduced just 60 bills in 2011 and passed just 31 ordinances, the quietest year by both metrics in nearly a decade of legislative data available on the city’s website.

Year No. of Bills No. of Ordinances1
2004 88 46
2005 83 41
2006 95 53
2007 102 50
2008 71 33
2009 79 35
2010 64 32
2011 60 31

Source: Civil Beat analysis of Honolulu Docushare system data

The dearth of proposals can’t be entirely chalked up to inexperience.

Kobayashi introduced only three bills, while Garcia and Romy Cachola, the longest-sitting Council members, introduced four and two, respectively. A Civil Beat analysis shows the breakdown for all nine members.

Council Member2 No. of Bills Introduced in 2011
Ernie Martin 6
Nestor Garcia 4
Ikaika Anderson 3
Tulsi Gabbard 3
Ann Kobayashi 3
Tom Berg 2
Romy Cachola 2
Stanley Chang 1
Breene Harimoto 0
By Request (all members) 36
Total 60

Source: Civil Beat analysis of Honolulu Docushare system data

It wasn’t just an issue of quantity, but also of quality. The Council tackled precious few big issues. Where 2009 had the cell phone ban for drivers and a proposal to ship solid waste and 2010 saw debates on tents and shopping carts in the parks and a very controversial fireworks ban, 2011 had little of the same spark.

There was of course the recent sidewalks storage ban, which angered homeless advocates and Occupy Honolulu protesters.

But otherwise, not very much.

There was a bill to limit political signs on private property, but that didn’t generate all that much heat before it died quietly. There were proposed fee changes for parking and golf courses and driver’s licenses. There were zoning changes and planning document updates (more on that in our look forward to 2012).

UPDATE There was the council’s bizarre handling of a controversial measure to subsidize a private scrap yard. After passing a law to eliminate the subsidy, council members passed a conflicting law to reinstate it. When the mayor vetoed that reinstatement, the council overrode his veto, just six weeks after passing the initial law to eliminate the discount.

There were non-binding resolutions urging a whole host of actions, from addressing reports of elevated hexavalent chromium levels to loosening international visa restrictions.

But it was, in a word, a quiet year.

When asked about the Council’s 2011 work, Garcia first pointed to the fireworks ban passed a year earlier before correcting himself. He struggled to name other accomplishments before settling on the budget he helped shepherd through as chair. Though one is passed every year, Garcia said balancing a budget in tough economic times without “exorbitant” tax increases should earn the Council a notch on its collective belt.

Kobayashi too had positive things to say about the Council’s work in 2011, pointing to efforts to shine the light on city operations, particularly the rail project.

“There was a lot more accountability. There was more transparency,” she said.

Referring to her new colleagues, she said, “They’ve been really great, and we’ve been working hard together to improve the image of the Council with more transparency, and I think it’s happened.”

Check back soon to see what you can expect from the Honolulu City Council in 2012.

Adrienne LaFrance contributed to this report.

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