Several hundred city workers, neighbor island mayors and other Hawaii dignitaries listened to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell at Ala Moana Beach Park in February discussing some of his favorite subjects during his State of the City speech: potholes, bike lanes and park repairs. 

One person was conspicuously absent: City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, who often emerges as the mayor’s nemesis in policy debates.

Martin has made no secret of his aspirations to be mayor, fueling speculation that he will challenge Caldwell in 2016. Some people say he has been working to undermine the mayor any way he can. And his absence from the State of the City address, made glaringly apparent as Caldwell introduced Council members during his speech, only fueled the speculation.

At the time, Martin’s policy advisor, Laura Figueira, told Civil Beat that Martin was absent that morning because of a prior commitment and that it was not “a slight to the mayor at all.”

City Council Chairman Ernie Martin speaks with Mayor Caldwell before Gov. Abercrombie news conference on April 17, 2014

During a rare moment together, City Council Chairman Ernie Martin speaks with Mayor Kirk Caldwell before Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s news conference on April 17, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Later that day, Martin reappeared, eclipsing evening news coverage of Caldwell’s State of the City address, with news of his own. He had just led the charge that tabled two of the mayor’s key bills for increasing city revenue: placing ads on the outside of buses and charging residents for trash collection.

Technically, they were deferred by the budget committee. Martin said that it was important to sideline the bills before the mayor plugged the revenue streams into the proposed budget. 

The mayor’s office wasn’t pleased.

“Despite Chair Martin’s efforts to embarrass us, he is not correct that we need to remove them from the budget,” Jesse Broder Van Dyke, a spokesman for the mayor, told Civil Beat by text that day. 

Tensions between the mayor and the City Council, especially Martin, have played out over the past year and a half that Caldwell has been in office. But with an election on the horizon and four Council seats up for grabs, that dynamic could change.

One of those seats is Martin’s, though he’s not facing a formidable challenge from either of his two opponents. Two seats are open, certain to be filled by new members. Meanwhile, Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga is in the midst of a heated race, facing challenges from Sam Aiona, a former state representative and past chair of the Hawaii Republican Party, and Joli Tokusato, a candidate endorsed by the powerful Local 5 union, which represents hotel workers.

Caldwell didn’t respond to an interview request for this report. Neither did Martin.

“I think the public is sick and tired of the politics going on between the City Council and mayor.” — City Council candidate Sam Aiona

Martin said through his policy advisor, Figueira, that “the real story” is not his attempts to subterfuge the mayor’s political agenda, but rather Caldwell’s attempts to influence the composition of the City Council and undermine Martin’s power. 

 “The real story is Kirk’s personal endorsement of Brandon Elefante and Tommy Waters and the extension of his cabinet to assist both candidates,” Martin said, according to Figueira.

“Right now, I’m focused on my own race and wish all candidates the best of luck. I look forward to working with the new members,” Martin said through Figueira.

Martin has chaired the council since 2011, a quick rise to power for a Council member elected to his first term just seven months prior.

He’s been able to hold on to the power for a relatively long time — the nine-member council has a history of volatility when it comes to leadership. Five votes are required to elect a new chair. That can happen at any time, but often a chair election takes place at the beginning of the year after an election when new members have been seated.  

It’s not clear whether new members on the Council may try to precipitate a leadership change, but some candidates told Civil Beat they would work to mend the relationship between the mayor and the Council. 

As chair, Martin has the power to appoint and strip Council members of committee assignments at any time. Some of the more powerful committees are the Budget Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, and the Zoning and Planning Committee, chaired by Councilman Ikaika Anderson, who is also the Council’s vice chair and a candidate for Congress. The chair also presides over meetings of the full Council.

Ongoing Political Battles

City Council members have often sided with the chair in clashes with the mayor.

The Council killed the first bill Caldwell proposed as mayor – a gas tax. It didn’t even get a hearing. It also scuttled all but one of Caldwell’s 10 tax proposals. The one that passed was a tax hike for non-owner-occupied homes valued at $1 million or more.

Caldwell’s proposal to charge fees for trash pickup didn’t pass, nor did his attempt to place advertisements on the sides of buses to increase funding for public transportation.

The Council slashed by half the mayor’s $22 million budget for Housing First for the homeless earlier this year. Then right before the Council’s deadline for passing a balanced budget, Martin unveiled his own proposal for assisting the homeless, which included $32 million for housing homeless funded by cuts to the mayor’s road repaving program — which Caldwell has trumpeted as a top priority of his administration.

“That was pure politics,” said Councilman Breene Harimoto, who has exhibited an independent streak on the Council and is moving on to the state Senate next year. (He’s running unopposed.)  

Anderson was later credited with brokering a compromise deal that saved much of the mayor’s road repaving budget.

“I think we are in a situation where we are beyond healthy tension. Because of the way politics being what it is and the ambitions of certain Council members, perhaps it gets in the way of doing what is best for the people.” — Outgoing Councilman Breene Harimoto

Most recently, the Council deferred indefinitely two of the mayor’s bills aimed at cleaning up Waikiki and prodding the homeless out of the tourist haven —  measures that would outlaw sitting and lying on sidewalks and public urination and defecation. 

Caldwell has been reticent about discussing conflicts between him and Martin. But he was more forthcoming after this latest move by the Council. 

While not using Martin’s name, Caldwell suggested that the council chair was to blame for the deferral of the bills by the Council Zoning and Planning Committee. 

“I have to ask what happened from the time the bill was introduced less than a month ago to now that changed things,” Caldwell said at a press conference shortly after the vote. “And I saw the council member from the North Shore (Martin) initiate this change today before the council.”

Martin doesn’t sit on the Zoning and Planning Committee, but showed up for the hearing. 

Some have also looked to Martin as the cause of the the collapse of a $142 million deal to sell 12 of the city’s public housing complexes. Martin introduced resolutions last year that threatened to cancel or delay the deal because he didn’t like the way the money would have been spent. The developer said that the resolutions undermined the deal’s financing, causing the deal to fall through. Martin countered that the financing was never secure to begin with.

Harimoto, who has at times sided with the mayor, though not on these two most recent bills, said that all the fighting ultimately hurts the public interest.

“I think it is healthy to have a little push back from the Council. We are not here to just go along with whatever the mayor wants — tension is good,” he said. “But I think we are in a situation where we are beyond healthy tension. Because of the way politics being what it is and the ambitions of certain Council members, perhaps it gets in the way of doing what is best for the people.”

Checks and Balances or Political Posturing?

Other Council members downplay tensions between the mayor and the City Council and also point out that policy debates between the Caldwell administration and the Council are a healthy part of the political process. 

“I wouldn’t say that the tension is greater than expected or atypical,” said Councilman Stanley Chang, who is also running for Congress. “Disagreement is part of the democratic process. There is nothing wrong with debate and there is nothing wrong with cooperation. I think the record of this Council is very positive.”

In an interview in June, Kobayashi said that the actions of the Council are often perceived as power plays by Martin when in reality the Council just disagrees with the mayor. 

Caldwell’s bills aimed at cleaning up Waikiki are perhaps a good example. While Martin may have helped orchestrate opposition to the bills, Caldwell and top officials from his administration struggled to answer basic questions about the measures in front of the Council, such as how many homeless children there are on Oahu or how many available beds there are for the chronically homeless. Council members also seemed genuinely concerned that policies aimed at “disrupting” the homeless have been too harsh, particularly in the face of a shortage of shelter space. 

“I think we could get a lot more done if we worked together.” — City Council candidate Tommy Waters

Council members have also complained that the mayor has done a poor job communicating with the Council and has failed to foster a good working relationship. 

“Greater information flow between the City Council and various county agencies, particularly in instances when several agencies share responsibilities for implementing key county functions, could contribute towards building a culture of increased trust and cooperation,” Fukunaga wrote in a recent Civil Beat questionnaire for her re-election bid. 

The mayor has struck back at the Council at times. Last year, he told Council members that he wouldn’t release any of the funding for projects they had inserted into the 2014 fiscal year budget for their districts, calling them “out of control” earmarks. And for the past two years he has declined to approve the fiscal year budgets, allowing them to go into effect without his signature.

Fresh Faces on the Way

Some City Council candidates aren’t saying much about the Council-mayor tension. Others are. 

“I think the public is sick and tired of the politics going on between the City Council and mayor,” said Sam Aiona, who is challenging Fukunaga for her District 6 seat representing much of urban Honolulu. 

If elected, he said, he wouldn’t have any part in it.

“I’m not going to be a rubber stamp for Ernie Martin or whoever is the council chair, and I’m not going to be a rubber stamp for the mayor either,” Aiona said. 

Waters, who is running for the District 4 seat, which includes Waikiki, Aina Haina, Hawaii Kai, Kahala and Kaimuki, said that he has noticed the tension between the Council and mayor since Caldwell took office. He said he would work to improve the relationship if elected, noting that he has had a good relationship with Caldwell dating back to 2002 when they served together in the Legislature. 

“To the extent that I could bridge the gap between the current Council and mayor, I really want to try,” Waters said. “I think we could get a lot more done if we worked together.”

Another District 4 candidate, Natalie Iwasa, who frequently testifies in front of the Council on various measures, said that the debates over homeless policy have been particularly dysfunctional. 

“I think what we need is more cooperation between the administration and Council,” she said. “Because if we keep going this way — the administration tries to do something and then the council tries to do something else — then neither method is going to work as good as it could.”

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