And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. — Don Corleone, “The Godfather”

This is how the City & County of Honolulu works, in theory:

It has two branches: Legislative and Executive. Neither of these beasts is allowed to exercise power over the other so they are separately caged.

When the nine members of City Council are working in the same room they are clustered into a council chamber. When the executive branch is working, each gets his or her own office. If one happens to be the mayor, he or she has an office equipped with shower, toilet stall and a pantry that is about the size of the toilet stall. These perks are why some city council members want to be mayor whereas few mayors after they stop being mayor seem inclined to join the city council.

Honolulu Hale tower, blue sky, palms

A view from outside Honolulu Hale.

Civil Beat

The purpose of all this governance is razor sharp and crystal clear. Under the Charter of the City and County of Honolulu all city powers shall be used to serve and advance the general welfare, health, happiness, safety and aspirations of its inhabitants, present and future, and to encourage their full participation in the process of governance.

How I love specificity.

So how do you apply for City Council, prosecutor or mayor? All these positions are elected and should be.

While this seems fairly obvious for mayor and council members it is apparently less clear for the Office of Prosecuting Attorney. After a column I recently wrote, “2016 Is Just Around the Corner,” two readers offered comments suggesting that the Prosecutor’s job should not be an elected position and perhaps the mayor should be able to appoint the prosecutor with confirmation by the City Council with a two–thirds majority. I would like to thank the readers offering their comments but respectfully disagree.

When the mayor appoints the prosecutor the prosecutor appears to — and does — owe allegiance to the mayor’s priorities and inclinations. The debt is also political in nature. If the prosecutor wants to keep the job he can be expected to garner political support for the mayor’s political ambitions.

An example of such a conflict arose in the prosecution of the Mayor Jeremy Harris Political Campaign For Re-election in 2000. In 2002, the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission investigated the Harris Campaign for campaign spending violations. The commission planned to refer its investigation for prosecutorial evaluation. Since the Campaign Spending Commission is a state office the logical referral would be to the state Department of the Attorney General.

By 2002 Linda Lingle had been elected governor and appointed Mark Bennett as her attorney general. In 2002 Mayor Harris was running for governor challenging Governor Lingle.

Due to the apparent conflict of Governor Lingle’s attorney general prosecuting her political opponent, Mayor Harris, the Mayor Harris Campaign case was referred to the Prosecuting Attorney of the City & County of Honolulu. That was me.

The events that followed appeared to persuade Mayor Harris to withdraw from the race for governor and subsequently to withdraw from the political arena altogether. The 2002 campaign committee and some of its promoters were prosecuted for campaign spending violations.

So it behooves us to keep the prosecutor elected as are the mayor and council members. We should do this despite irrefutable evidence that we have occasionally elected scoundrels, hooligans, the ethically challenged, the unstable, the floridly psychotic and an assorted mass of humanity afflicted with various and significant levels of questionability.

However, a fair assessment suggests some steps have already been taken that eventually could challenge the status quo in Honolulu Hale.

A large step forward in Honolulu was the shift to nonpartisan elections. It started at the prosecutor’s office and eventually embraced the mayor’s office and city council as well. Crime obviously isn’t a partisan issue nor should running the city be.

A friend told me the basic way to run the city is to keep the wheels rolling and the fluids flowing. Neither keeping wheels rolling nor fluids flowing requires partisan decision making. This change embraces and encourages voting for the person rather than the particular political flavor.

Another goal of non-partisanship is to encourage the mayor, prosecutor, and council members to hire, promote and make decisions on the basis of merit rather than some form of patronage.

A further effort that bodes well for the city’s future is the robust ethics enforcement of Executive Director Chuck Totto and his band of rangers who work with the City’s Ethics Commission. Their leg work secured a $50,000 fine for council member Romy Cachola for accepting free meals (I wonder if any were from Rod Tam and family), golf outings paid for by lobbyists, abuse of his city vehicle allowance and an assortment of other oversights.

As both mayor and prosecuting attorney I routinely called Totto to seek his advice on actions I was considering taking. I can’t count the number of times he made sure I wasn’t stepping into sludge.

Chuck Totto’s description of Cachola’s actions as “pernicious” was impressive. I wasn’t aware Chuck knew how to use big words like that. The hefty fine and chastisement will go a long way toward deterring Cachola-type abuses in the future.

How much do you value our journalism?

Civil Beat focuses exclusively on the kind of journalism most at risk of disappearing – in-depth, investigative and enterprise coverage of important local issues. While producing this type of journalism isn’t cheap, you won’t find our content hidden behind a paywall. We also never worry about upsetting advertisers – because we don’t allow any. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on donations from readers like you to help keep our stories free and accessible to everyone. If you value our journalism, show us with your support.

 

About the Author