Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin stood at a podium in Honolulu Hale’s council chambers on Friday, draped in leis and easily cracked jokes as he addressed a sea of state and city dignitaries who had gathered for the council’s annual inauguration ceremony.
His fellow council members had just unanimously voted to reinstate him as council chair, indicating that the current power structure within the council will remain largely intact this year.
It’s also a sign that tensions between the council and Mayor Kirk Caldwell will likely continue.
Martin has made no secret of his aspirations to be mayor and political insiders say he’s worked to undermine Caldwell’s political agenda — something Martin denies — as he positions himself to challenge Caldwell in the 2016 mayoral race.
Martin’s reappointment as chair allows him to exercise power over other council members. He presides over council meetings and has the ability to appoint or strip members of committee assignments at any time.
Last week, he indicated that he will be keeping Ann Kobayashi, who has also clashed with the Caldwell administration, as chair of the powerful Budget Committee.
Ikaika Anderson, who was reappointed vice chair of the council, will remain as chair of the Zoning and Planning Committee, also a high profile committee that wields power over development, including the master-planned community of Hoopili and transit-oriented development. Anderson also indicated last week that he will be taking up the controversial topic of illegal vacation rentals in his committee this year.
With the council’s leadership remaining intact, two incoming council members promise to add youth to the council, but likely won’t shift the balance of power.
Councilman Brandon Elefante, 28, has replaced Breene Harimoto, who was elected to the Hawaii Senate in November. In a leadership shakeup in 2011, Harimoto was ousted as the council’s vice chair by Martin and Anderson.
Harimoto was often an outspoken member of the council, exhibiting an independent streak as he clashed with the council on a range of policy matters, including bills related to the homeless, and more recently Sunshine Law issues.
Elefante, who worked as Harimoto’s aide, seems to have retained some of this spirit — taking up the campaign against bills aimed at banning homeless from sitting and sleeping on public sidewalks, arguing that they lack compassion.
Elefante will chair the Business, Economic Development and Tourism Committee.
Elefante told Civil Beat that he hopes to bring the perspective of the millennial generation to the council, including a focus on alternative modes of transportation and using technology to make business before the council more accessible and transparent.
While he disagreed with the Caldwell administration on homeless policies, he said that he liked a lot of the mayor’s proposals.
Trevor Ozawa, 31, takes his seat at the council after a hard fought campaign against Tommy Waters, who unsuccessfully challenged November’s election results.
Ozawa seems to have ingratiated himself with council leadership — both Martin and Kobayashi attended his election day party. By contrast, Waters had the support of Caldwell.
Martin has tapped Ozawa to chair the Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee, replacing Councilman Ron Menor, who has been transferred to the Public Health, Safety and Welfare Committee.
Ozawa declined to speak about any specific initiatives that he would be pushing for in the council this year, but reiterated his campaign focus of making Oahu a more affordable place for local families.
“I’m trying to raise a family here in Honolulu,” he said. “I’m real in touch with what is going on with the general public. I can feel their frustration and I want to do something about it.”
Ozawa dismissed tensions between the council and the Caldwell administration and said he looked forward to working with both.
On Friday, as Martin delivered the council’s inaugural speech, he at times sounded more like he was giving a political stump speech, a sign that the the politics of the 2016 mayoral race will likely continue to play out in the business of the council.
Caldwell boasted last week that for the second year in a row, the administration had met its annual goal of repaving at least 300 lane miles of dilapidated roads.
But Martin pointed out that the council had appropriated an “unprecedented” $297 million for road repaving between 2011 and 2013.
“Today we can see improvements occurring all around the island,” he said, with no mention of Caldwell’s efforts.
He also championed the council’s role in preserving undeveloped land around Turtle Bay and appropriating nearly $50 million in last year’s budget for housing the homeless. Some $32 million of the funding came from a proposal by Martin after the council slashed Caldwell’s own proposed homeless funding.
Martin also touched on what is likely to be one of the most high profile issues before the council this year — the Honolulu rail project. New cost projections put the project at about $6 billion.
Caldwell has maintained that the council doesn’t have authority over HART’s budget, a notion that Kobayashi and other council members disagree with.
Martin, a rail supporter, stressed that the council would be keeping close watch over HART’s budget and working to resolve funding challenges.
“We will exercise full authority and provide the leadership necessary to resolve these issues,” he said.