Hawaii has a reputation for its byzantine, paper-pushing approach to government regulation of business and development. Our state typically shows up near the bottom of lists of best places to do business.

It’s understandable then, to some extent, that Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting tries to provide significant assistance for big development projects with lots of moving parts and complex circumstances.

But the questionable way that DPP is going about providing that assistance demands investigation by city ethics officials on behalf of voters and taxpayers who wonder, rightly, whether the department is looking out for the public’s interests or greasing the skids for big developers.

Canoes rest along the bank of Haseko's lagoon.

Canoes rest along the bank of Haseko’s lagoon.

Civil Beat

Civil Beat’s Anita Hofschneider detailed some of the more outrageous examples of DPP’s assistance in a story earlier this week. That piece and related previous reporting focus on the lingering dispute between homeowners who bought residences in the Ocean Pointe and Hoakalei developments in Ewa created by the Japanese firm Haseko.

In planning stages for many years, the development was sold, in part, on the promise to potential buyers that Haseko would develop a marina on the property that would provide access to the open sea. After selling more than $1 billion worth of homes, with individual homeowners paying as much as $100,000 extra because of the marina, Haseko announced in 2011 that instead, it would build a land-locked lagoon.

Homeowners filed a class-action suit, saying the downgraded amenity would make their homes less valuable (a point that Haseko disputes). A jury agreed, awarding the plaintiffs $27 million in damages in September; but the award was subsequently thrown out. The case is now being appealed.

An attorney representing the homeowners sent a 53-page document to the Honolulu City Council and city Ethics Commission last month asking for an investigation of the DPP’s relationship with Haseko.

“I write to you because many people believe that our city is run by and for developers,” wrote attorney Terrence Revere. “Unfortunately, the documents I have reviewed in the civil case confirm that there is an absurd relationship between (DPP) and Haseko.”

The document reveals a long list of incidents in which DPP officials appeared to advise Haseko on how to get the project approved with insider knowledge and pointers that might not be given to smaller developments or to individuals.

It also shows the move by Director of Planning and Permitting David Tanoue from his position with the city to a new job with an engineering firm, where he serves as a consultant to the Haseko project. And it reveals DPP chief planner Kathy Sokugawa telling Haseko what it needs to do to clear the City Council rezoning process.

“The City and County government that’s supposed to be protecting the homeowners and consumers was instead working to undermine the promises made to them.” — State Rep. Matthew LoPresti

In the latter incident, Sokugawa sounds strikingly more like a paid consultant to the project than a city planning employee doing the public’s business. Emails included in the complaint show that a DPP staffer, Bob Stanfield, reviewed Haseko’s public testimony on the Ewa Development Plan before it was presented publicly.

As part of the letter to the City Council and Ethics Commission, Revere makes multiple recommendations regarding how DPP should reform its process of dealing with developers.

For its own good, DPP ought to take them seriously. Director of Planning and Permitting George Atta tells Civil Beat, “We don’t have a special policy when dealing with developers of large projects.” Perhaps it’s time to create one.

In particular, there ought to be bright lines of separation that guide how DPP employees interact with developers, if for nothing else than to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Even if some of these instances may be reasonably explained, taken together, they create a significant ethical cloud over the office.

Second, meetings between developers and DPP must be more transparent. Developers certainly have proprietary plans and other interests that they shouldn’t have to disclose in public meetings. But DPP should strive for a transparent process that allows it to properly provide information to and oversight for developer projects.

One good start would be to provide public notice for such meetings and to publish minutes afterward. Proprietary information could be appropriately redacted beforehand. That would be a significant improvement over the current loose collaboration with Haseko on this matter, as one Haseko consultant described its relationship with DPP.

State Rep. Matthew LoPresti is both a Haseko homeowner and the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit. His review of the correspondence and interactions between Haseko and DPP officials left him outraged.

“I felt betrayed,” he told Civil Beat. “The City and County government that’s supposed to be protecting the homeowners and consumers was instead working to undermine the promises made to them.”

Without significant reforms at DPP, LoPresti won’t be the last taxpayer to feel this way. City Council members ought to take that sense of betrayal seriously, and the Ethics Commission should waste no time in opening an inquiry.

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