Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s often-fractious relationship with most members of the City Council appeared to reach a new low last week, with some Council members calling him insincere and disrespectful during a public meeting.

Tension between the city’s executive and legislative branches is typical in Honolulu, and policy disagreements are the norm. Recent clashes between the Caldwell administration and Council leaders range from how to subsidize recycling companies to where to build low-income housing.

But the relationship has deteriorated, aggravated by a political rivalry between Caldwell, who is running for re-election this year, and Council Chairman Ernie Martin, who is considering challenging him.

Honolulu CIty Council wide 2016. 27 jan 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Honolulu City Council members deliberate during a hearing in January. Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

Most Council members blame the mayor’s lack of communication, contending that he hasn’t been doing enough to reach across the aisle.

Councilman Trevor Ozawa from East Honolulu suggested during a budget hearing last week that the Council consider funding a new position to serve as a liaison between the Council and the mayor’s office, even though Caldwell already has several people on his communications team.

“I can tell you it’s impossible for me to understand what’s going on in my district from his administration,” Ozawa said. “The lack of communication is to a point where it’s unbelievable.”

“It’s disappointing,” said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who leads the Budget Committee.

Ozawa has never been friendly with Caldwell, who supported his opponent in a close election two years ago, and Kobayashi has often been critical of Caldwell as well.

“The lack of communication is to a point where it’s unbelievable.” — Councilman Trevor Ozawa

Ozawa’s and Kobayashi’s complaints have been echoed by several other Council members, including Martin, Joey Manahan and Carol Fukunaga.

John Hart, professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University, thinks Caldwell should pay attention to these concerns, regardless of the political motivations that may be driving them.

“Politics still is, to a great extent, built on individual relationships and if the mayor and the Council aren’t talking to each other and the Council is feeling slighted then you’re going to see policy ramifications to that,” Hart said. “At the end of the day, politics is not about political science, it’s about communication.”

The mayor’s public information officers didn’t reply to repeated requests for an interview.

Affecting Progress On Housing And Homelessness?

Councilman Joey Manahan from Kalihi seemed to be choosing his words carefully during last week’s City Council hearing on Bill 50, a proposed subsidy for recycling companies.

He was criticizing Caldwell for calling a press conference to announce a compromise proposal a day before the Council was scheduled to vote on overriding his veto. The mayor should have introduced his proposal as an amendment or reached out to Council members directly, Manahan said.

“I would just have to say that perhaps… if there’s differences between certain members of this Council… that’s one thing,” said Manahan, who appeared to be referencing the rivalry between Caldwell and Martin.

City Council Chair Ernie Martin with a box of tissue/kleenex for mayor on the desk during press conference.
After Mayor Kirk Caldwell looked into TV cameras and appealed for the Council’s quick action on a senior housing project in Chinatown recently, Council Chair Ernie Martin held his own press conference complete with a box of Kleenex to symbolize his feigned sympathy for the mayor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“When the administration treats the body as it does by doing press conferences before they even try working with us … that further drives a wedge into the relationship not just between the mayor and individual members but really between the administration and the body of the Council,” said Manahan, who didn’t respond to requests to comment for this report. “This is the legislative branch of the city government and I really think we should be treated with a little more respect.”

The Council overrode the mayor’s veto 7-2, with Councilman Brandon Elefante and Councilwoman Kymberly Pine voting against the override.

It was only the latest example of friction between the city’s executive and legislative branches.

Honolulu has some of the highest home prices in the nation and one of the worst rates of homelessness.

“Those of us who are players in the arena are almost forced to decide one way or another which side we are aligned with.” — Rev. Bob Nakata, affordable housing advocate

Caldwell has clashed with Council members on how to address these issues, with the Council derailing a 2013 effort to sell the city’s affordable housing stock and then denying Caldwell funding last year to hire staff to manage housing funds. That drama is likely to repeat itself this year as Caldwell seeks money for a new division dedicated to housing development.

Apart from the budget, the Council has also delayed the introduction of a resolution to build senior housing in Chinatown, and is considering a building moratorium in Aiea, Salt Lake, Moanalua and Red Hill that would stymie another affordable housing project.

During recent budget meetings, Ozawa and Kobayashi grilled city Department of Community Services Director Gary Nakata about why the administration was requesting money for a new housing division, saying the city’s request lacked clarity. Nakata declined to comment after the hearing, but a city spokesman said in an email later that “The Council took the city from being on the verge of exiting the housing business to adding millions to its housing portfolio, without adequate staffing.”

Kobayashi later questioned why the mayor didn’t attend the budget hearings himself, noting that it’s something previous mayors like Mufi Hannemann have done.

Fukunaga also said that she found out only recently from the administration about funding deadlines for Michaels Development, the developer behind the Chinatown project.

At a press conference earlier this month, Caldwell looked into TV cameras to implore the Council to act on this development project before it was too late.

Martin responded by holding his own press conference in his office where he sarcastically joked that he was moved to tears by Caldwell’s plea.

Colin Moore, an associate professor of political science at University of Hawaii, said it’s fair to see the Council as obstructionist as well as to perceive the mayor as grandstanding.

“It just depends on how you look at it,” he said, adding: “It’s hard to disentangle the genuine fights from just the grandstanding.”

‘We All Read About It In The Paper’

Not everyone on the Council is blaming the mayor for a communication breakdown.

Elefante from Aiea hasn’t been up to Caldwell’s office recently, but said he has a good relationship with the mayor and knows he can always call him if he needs to.

Pine from West Oahu said she sometimes isn’t invited to events in her district, but doesn’t get upset because she understands that administration officials are busy.

Councilman Ikaika Anderson from Waimanalo said he’s never had a problem communicating with Caldwell, even when they disagree. He thinks the tensions between the Council and the mayor are no different from those under previous administrations.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell explains the city’s revenue streams in press conference.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell explains the city’s revenue streams during a recent press conference at Honolulu Hale. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But those three are in the minority. Other Council members say the mayor has ignored numerous traditional courtesies that would have helped smooth over the relationship. (Councilman Ron Menor declined to comment.)

The litany of complaints include: Finding out information from the administration through the news media rather than directly; not getting invited to events and press conferences in one’s own district; getting last-minute invitations to events; and not receiving courtesies bestowed upon Council members by previous mayors, like the mayor’s attendance at Council budget hearings and previews of budget proposals.

Kobayashi said problems with communication go back to 2013 when Caldwell proposed a gas tax without sitting down and talking it over with her and other Council members.

“Right now we’re not doing very much. We can point fingers all we want but in the end we’re not helping people.” — Councilwoman Kymberly Pine

“We all read about it in the paper rather than having some discussion,” she said.

In a rare move, the Council killed the proposal on its first reading, which is usually a formality.

Fukunaga thinks things started going downhill after the city adopted a “Homeless Action Plan” in 2013. She felt included in the formation of that plan, but says since then she’s been finding out what’s going on through the media and hasn’t had a sufficient dialogue with the administration.

“If you want to build trust between institutions… the first thing is really communication,” Fukunaga said. “Building trust requires a certain level of respect.”

Ozawa described his relationship with Caldwell as “nonexistent” and said that the mayor has never invited him to his office in the two years that the attorney has served on the Council.

“If Trevor is right… if I were a City Council member I wouldn’t take that sort of bullshit,” said local political analyst Neal Milner.

The University of Hawaii political science professor said a leader should maintain traditional courtesies unless he or she has a good reason for not doing so.

“Those kinds of things are right up there with policy considerations for making things run,” he said.

Calculating That Voters Don’t Care

The squabbling has been frustrating for housing advocates like the Rev. Bob Nakata, who represents the nonprofit Faith Action for Community Equity and said it’s difficult to lobby for affordable housing in the current atmosphere.

“Those of us who are players in the arena are almost forced to decide one way or another which side we are aligned with,” he said. “In a way, the election may be needed to clear the air. At the same time, it is aggravating the bad blood.”

Nakata thinks the sour relationship impedes the city’s ability to address homelessness and affordable housing.

“There’s an inability to look beyond personal differences to look more seriously at what the needs of the city are,” Nakata said. “I think on both sides there has been an unwillingness to set aside differences and look at what really needs to be done.”

Pine agrees that both sides are to blame, calling the city’s lack of progress on homelessness “shameful.”

“Right now we’re not doing very much,” she said. “We can point fingers all we want but in the end we’re not helping people. So let’s stop pointing fingers and let’s find something that we can agree on. Someone is going to have to give in to somebody.”

Still, Moore thinks the bad blood is bound to continue, and worsen. It’s become a vicious cycle and the election is still months away.

More importantly, “I don’t think the mayor seems to think it matters much at all for his re-election campaign,” Moore said. “I don’t think it’s something that the voters care all that much about.”

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