People’s lack of trust in government in Hawaii is as high as I can ever remember.

The reason can be stated in a sentence: The public doesn’t think politicians have the people’s interest at heart.

When Gov. David Ige met with Civil Beat’s editorial board last week he talked repeatedly about developing the people’s trust. He was talking about his goals as governor.

Ige said, “People don’t feel like they are getting a good value for their tax dollar from the state. It is about the public and restoring the public’s trust in government.”

In the past, I don’t remember any politician using the word “trust” as freely or frequently.

Governor David Ige editorial board. 2 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gov. David Ige meets with the Civil Beat editorial board and reporters Thursday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Distrust abounds because some of our key politicians fail to do what they promise and, worse, they hide important information from the public.

Take the massive traffic jam on the H-1 last Tuesday. Drivers are still ruminating about why they were not informed sooner when the zipper lane broke, leaving some westbound drivers stuck in traffic as long as five hours.

And what about the buffoonish cops who issued 65 tickets in the vicinity of Waimano Home Road to the frustrated drivers talking on their cellphones while they were stalled in the traffic nightmare; people who were only calling home to warn their families they would be late. Tell me, how was slapping citations on the stalled drivers in the public’s interest?

Public distrust is generated not just by a day’s bad traffic tangle, but also by the mishandling of multi-year public works projects some voters hated in the first place.

Lesson No. 1 for any politician is if you do something bad, come clean and do it quickly.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell lost public confidence after he promised a rail transit system that would be on budget and on time.  Now it’s almost $1 billion over budget, and, to pay for it, the mayor is pushing for a tax increase that could go on forever.

Gov. Ige says the difficulty is that information about the rail price hike seemed to come out of nowhere when just 12 months before the project seemed to be progressing as promised.

Ige says, ‘There is a big difference from being on budget and on schedule and a $1 billion shortfall. The obvious follow up is ‘Is that all of it or will the shortfall be up to $1.5 billion in the months ahead?'”

As the rail cost skyrocketed, some elected officials even stopped trusting each other.

Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi says after getting blindsided too many times by the Caldwell administration’s ever-changing budget for rail, she’s lost confidence.

Kobayashi says, “My friends keep saying that’s why I have all these stab wounds in my back. It comes from people who keep lying to me when I keep trusting them.”

Ige has been governor for only three months, not long enough to develop a serious lack-of-trust deficit. But many of Ige’s once-diehard supporters say their trust in Ige wavered when the governor nominated land developers’ lobbyist Carleton Ching to run the state department charged with protecting Hawaii’s natural resources.

And some of Ching’s supporters lost confidence in Ige when he failed to make a compelling case to the public about why he nominated Ching, and by the Ige  administration’s failure to prepare Ching for the rigors of his ultimately unsuccessful confirmation bid.

Talk about generating voter distrust, look at the career-damaging faux pas of Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi.

Kenoi, who was once considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, ran up unauthorized personal charges on a county government credit card totaling $23,000, including hostess bar bills, $500-a-night hotel rooms, a $1,219 surfboard and some $2,000 worth of racing bike equipment.

To make matters worse, Kenoi’s administration initially withheld details of the mayor’s wrongful credit card purchases.

The mayor repaid all the money he owed for his personal charges made on the government credit card between 2009 and 2013, including $7,500, which was repaid just last week.

Billy Kenoi

Mayor Bill Kenoi speaks to outside the governor’s office at the Hawaii State Capitol in 2014. He was once considered a likely candidate for governor.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

But the final repayment payment was made only after West Hawaii Today reporter Nancy Cook Lauer exposed Kenoi’s $892 bar tab at the Club Evergreen.

Kenoi told reporters he thought it was okay to use the government credit card for personal purchases as long as he paid back the money, a new rule he apparently made up for himself.

Restoring public trust is not easy. Once a politician has lost the public’s confidence, how can he or she say, “Trust me, I am really in office to work for you.”

In the interest of helping, I offer five tips to politicians.

My unsolicited advice is called Rebooting Public Trust 101, a primer based on simple guidelines our parents gave us for honorable behavior.

Come Clean

Lesson No. 1 for any politician is if you do something bad, come clean and do it quickly.

A Washington D.C. political operative friend explained, “Kenoi should have taken the bandage off the wound and in a single day made public all his unauthorized credit card charges and explained what they were for no matter how unsavory.”

My friend says, “After apologizing, he could have pointed out that the charges ended in 2013, that he is now a changed man and will never do it again.”

The public distrusts any politician who thinks he or she is bigger than the rules the rest of us are forced to follow.

Instead, Lauer had to push for almost four years to get the county to release detailed records of Kenoi’s government credit card spending. And Kenoi’s credit card charges were released only after the paper filed a public records request.

The longer an errant politician hides the truth, the more easily doubt about the politician takes hold and solidifies. Leadership is all about persuasion, getting people to do what you want. When there is doubt about a politician’s personal character, his or her powers of persuasion are diminished.

And Kenoi still hasn’t explained why he doesn’t have his own credit card and why he was hanging out and with whom in hostess bars while he was traveling on county business.

Be Meticulous with Public Money

This bit of advice is especially directed toward Mayor Kenoi. Don’t run around like a fraternity boy, showing off by buying expensive drinks for your friends and “buy me drinkee” girls in hostess bars when you are using the taxpayers’ money

Voters will think you are a jerk.

When you travel on business, stay in modest hotels. You are on the public’s dime. Don’t lounge around in ritzy joints your constituents can’t afford.

The public certainly will mistrust any politician who tosses around their hard earned tax dollars for designer sushi, fancy hotel rooms and on overpriced drinks for “hostesses.”

Follow the Rules

The rules are for all of us. Just because you are a politician or a bureaucrat doesn’t mean you get off the hook.

The county finance director repeatedly urged Kenoi to stop using the country credit card for personal spending. But Kenoi ignored the warnings.

The public distrusts any politician who thinks he or she is bigger than the rules the rest of us are forced to follow.

The only time a politician can break the rules and be admired for it is when the rule-breaking is done publicly with flair for the good of the people.

That happened in 1980 when former Mayor Frank Fasi ordered bulldozers to come in in the middle of the night to tear out the ugly parking lot next to Honolulu Hale to open up the area for public green space.

Honolulu council members were stunned when they arrived at work the next day to find their parking spaces no longer existed.

Keep Your Word

If you ask for the public’s trust, be sure to do what you said you are going to do. And if you are forced by circumstances to modify what you promised, be meticulous about letting the public know about the reasons for change.

Oahu taxpayers should have been warned earlier about the cost overruns of the rail project. They shouldn’t have had the bombshell dropped on them at the same time they were informed they might have to pay a tax increase forever for the city’s careless budgetary management.

 Be Transparent

Do a better job of making public information public. When public officials withhold key facts, residents start to feel mistrustful. They begin to imagine the worst.

Mayor Caldwell could have been a lot more open when he broke the news he was going to renovate Ala Moana Beach Park.

By failing to let the public know what he absolutely will not allow as changes to the park, the mayor has some residents suspecting his real goal is to transform the working people’s park into a fancy, restaurant-filled promenade for the rich people in the new condos across the street — not the cherished oasis the park is now for family potluck barbecues.

“I am trying to think of how I can do a better job … I think at the end of the day it will help to restore public trust.” — Gov. David Ige

In the Internet era, too many politicians in Hawaii are still using 20th century methods to disseminate information in the 21st century.

They need to let the public in on what is happening while it is happening instead of picking and choosing when they will share the information in the future.

Caldwell tried to make up for lost trust with an op-ed piece in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Sunday to affirm that Ala Moana Beach Park will remain the people’s park, but the mayor still offers no reassurance about what kinds of commercialization will be considered.

A state information officer I know says, “I have always felt it is good to talk to the public. People will be more understanding if they are allowed in on the process. They will feel respected.”

Cars head westbound on H1 with freeway widening project at left of the photo.  19 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Cars head westbound on the H-1 freeway. Gov. Ige says he learned to be a better communicator after the recent traffic snarls caused by the zipper lane problems on the freeway.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gov. Ige not only understands the depth of people’s distrust in government but he also acknowledges that he needs to improve how he shares information with the public.

In his session with Civil Beat last week, he said, “I learned from the traffic jam. We have not been thoughtful in how we get information out to people.”

Ige says he guesses it is the engineer in him that makes him focus more on getting things done than on how to communicate about what he’s doing.

“I am trying to think of how I can do a better job … I think at the end of the day it will help to restore public trust.”

When I showed political analyst Neal Milner my list of five guidelines for politicians to regain public trust, Milner said, “The real perplexing question is why aren’t politicians following these rules of good leadership already?  Why aren’t they doing these things on their own? Why do you have to make a list?’

He’s right. Ige seems cognizant and interested in restoring public trust. But for some politicians in denial like Kenoi it may already be too late.

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