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Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 primary election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Isaac Choy, a Democratic candidate for the state House, District 23, which includes Manoa, Punahou, University and Moiliili. There is one other candidate, his Democratic primary opponent, Dale Kobayashi.
Name: Isaac W. Choy
Office seeking: State House, District 23
Occupation: Certified public accountant
Community organizations/prior offices held: Honolulu Community Action Program, treasurer
Age as of Aug. 13, 2016: 62
Place of residence: Honolulu
Campaign website: isaacwchoy.com
1. This year has seen an outsized influence from people who want big changes in how government is run. What would you do to change how the Legislature is run?
Government is much bigger than the Legislature, but with regard to the legislative branch, I don’t agree with the premise to this question. The legislative process is necessarily complex to ensure that proposals (bills) are properly vetted through the hearing process. Most of the objections to the legislative process have focused on practices like “gut and replace” and putting new language in bills at the end of the hearing process. The news media has done a good job of identifying these situations, and they have become anomalies in the process of how a bill becomes law.
People who want to pass or stop a particular piece of legislation should learn the process, come to the Capitol and meet with legislators, attend hearings and testify, if possible. Those who can’t attend in person can track bills on the Legislature’s website, view hearings on Capitol TV via Olelo Community Media, and submit testimony online. They should communicate with their legislators and the committee chairs through emails or by phone to ensure their viewpoint is heard and understood.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizen’s initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I don’t believe the initiative process will yield the results that many people anticipate. When initiatives become ballot measures, the vote is often swayed by the side that has the most money and can hire the best advertising agencies and PR firms to run their campaigns.
The public’s understanding of the issue is seldom based on voters conducting their own research but instead by what they see and hear in the media. If one looks at the initiative process in other states, it usually comes down to a battle between special interest groups.
It might seem like the Legislature or the county councils are too complicated or tedious, but the hearing process is the most democratic way for decisions about laws and ordinances to be made. It doesn’t cost anything, except your time, to participate and you can lobby and engage with news media, just like the special interests do.
3. Hawaii has long been dominated by the Democratic Party establishment. Should this change, and if so, how?
Will Rogers’ quote still applies: “I don’t belong to any organized party. I’m a Democrat.” A Democratic Party establishment is a myth. Maybe it once existed, but it doesn’t today. Just look at what happened at the Democratic Party state convention this year. People who joined the party only recently had a big impact on the party platform. May of them are now party officials and will help run the party and represent Hawaii Democrats at the national convention.
It’s often pointed out that the vast majority of legislators are Democrats, as if the Legislature is monolithic, but what is seldom mentioned is the wide range of philosophies within the Democratic caucuses of the House and Senate. There are Democrats who are pro-business and others who are anti-development. On virtually any bill, from environmental legislation to education to the budget, there are Democratic legislators on both sides of the issues.
The Democratic Party is inclusive and represents a diverse collection of views and causes. As long as this kind of diversity is maintained, I don’t see any reason to change.
4. What specific steps would you take to strengthen Hawaii’s lax lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure laws?
A lot has been said and written in Civil Beat and elsewhere about lobbying. There have been some good points made on this issue, and I do my best to keep an open mind and listen to all points of view. I believe this matter will be a topic of discussion in the upcoming legislative session and I look forward to learning more and participating in the deliberations.
5. Would you support eliminating Hawaii’s high fees for access to public records when the request is in the public interest?
The answer is more complex than the question implies. Contrary to what some may believe, many state agencies are understaffed and workers have to perform a variety of tasks. Asking workers to stop their regularly assigned duties to fulfill information requests means taking time away from the work they were hired to perform. The fees charged should balance the cost of staff time to compile and copy the records together with the public’s legitimate interest in getting the information.
6. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
Communication with the constituents is handled differently by each elected official. I have published a monthly newsletter since I was elected in which I share my thoughts with my constituents. I then make myself available to my constituents in a variety of ways. I host several meetings in the district throughout the year on a variety of topics. I walk my district and talk to people one-on-one and listen to their concerns and suggestions. I listen to what people in my district have to say about issues that are important to different groups in the community. And I have an open-door policy and welcome my constituents at my Capitol office. I’m also very accessible by phone and email, if anyone wants to discuss something with me.
7. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Paradise Park is an important issue for some in my district, especially in Precinct 5. Whether the park is allowed to operate and what kind of operation is appropriate for an attraction in a residential area are questions that do not fall within the oversight of the Legislature. For a legislator or anyone else to claim that an elected official can dictate what happens with Paradise Park would be misleading.
The issues related to Paradise Park are the responsibility of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. The Land Board must decide the fate of the park. As a representative of the community, I have submitted testimony to the Land Board, saying that I cannot support the park unless the community concerns are considered in the decision. The Land Board recently denied a request for the park to extend a permit, after hearing testimony from the public. This is the way the process is supposed to operate, and I support this process.
8. There is a desire to grow the economy through new development, yet also a need to protect our limited environmental resources. How would you balance these competing interests?
It is incorrect to claim that new development is a threat to environmental resources or that stopping development will protect these resources. The balance has to be achieved by intelligent planning. To begin with, we have long-term master plans that are updated periodically. A great deal of thoughtful work and deliberation goes into creating these plans. I believe that accommodating growth in the urban core and stopping suburban sprawl will go a long way toward protecting our environmentally sensitive green spaces, ag lands and rural areas.
Within the urban areas, planning concepts like Smart Growth and Complete Streets are being used to increase population density and provide more housing to accommodate the increased population growth. Properly done, this type of planning can provide us with more livable communities, where more people will able to take public transit, walk or ride bicycles to go to school, work or shop. I believe Mayor Caldwell is moving forward with this type of planning and I support his efforts, which I believe will protect our environment, while managing development wisely.
9. What should the Legislature do to improve police accountability?
The Police Department is a county department and I believe it should be up to the counties to improve accountability. One way to do this is by appointing good people to the respective county police commissions. Recently, Loretta Sheehan, a Honolulu city prosecutor who has been a champion of victims of sexual assault, was nominated to the commission. If we have more appointments like her, the accountability issues will be dealt with properly. In cases in which police officers are accused of sexual assault or domestic violence, they should not receive special treatment and should be treated like anyone else accused of these crimes.
10. Hawaii is the fastest-aging state. What would you do to ensure we’re taking care of our kupuna?
Because of the high percentage of elderly in our population, it is important that we provide services to allow our kupuna to be as independent as possible, which is a quality of life issue. This past session I supported several measures that address the needs of our aging population, including the appropriation of $1.7 million for the development of aging and disability resource centers, as well as additional funds for a program to monitor and evaluate their effectiveness.
Another appropriation that will go toward helping kupuna maintain their health and independence is the $3 million in funds for the Kupuna Care Program, which provides services such as transportation, attendant care, case management, home-delivered meals, homemaker, and personal care services.
11. What would you do to improve Hawaii’s public education system?
As a product of Hawaii’s public education system and a public university, I am a strong believer in public education. As chair of the House Committee on Higher Education, my focus is to support students and keep the University of Hawaii focused on its primary mission of providing a quality education for local students.
We must maintain funding for UH academic programs and give academic departments the wherewithal to be competitive in hiring qualified professors. Research is important, but I believe education, not research, should be the primary goal of the UH System. As at other universities, research tied to UH should pay more of its own way through grants.
To make higher education more affordable for local families, I introduced legislation last session, which passed the House, to make community college tuition free for qualified residents and to help ease the crushing debt from student loans. We shouldn’t be increasing tuition costs so administrators and researchers can enjoy extremely lucrative salaries.
As an advocate for student safety, I introduced and helped secure passage of legislation requiring the university to adopt practices and programs to prevent sexual assaults on campus and provide support for victims of such assaults.