Some ideas are so bad you have to wonder why anyone in their right mind would support them.

But that’s what Honolulu City Council members did last week when they voted 7-2 to allow private individuals, organizations and businesses to sponsor city facilities, including parks, in exchange for recognition signs.

The logic for the five-year pilot program is to encourage residents or businesses to pitch in money to help the cash-strapped city upgrade its deteriorating parks and facilities.

Sounds good, but the Outdoor Circle organization says the proposal is illegal because it pre-empts state law. Since 1965, state law has prohibited outdoor advertising, saying that means “any word or words in writing situated outdoors and so designed that it draws the attention and is read by persons in any public highway, park, or other public place.”

“When it comes to littering the landscape with signs, state law is very clear — the counties cannot have different standards,” says attorney Bridget Morgan. She was hired by Abigail Kawananakoa, a well-known descendant of Hawaiian royalty, to write the legal opinion for the Outdoor Circle.

But even if the council’s sponsorship proposal survives a legal challenge, the last thing anyone needs is for Oahu’s public parks or other city facilities such as the Neil S. Blaisdell Center to be dotted with private sponsorship signs.  City assets belong to the public, not to the highest bidder.

So much has been commercialized today; public parks and facilities are about the only places left where people find respite from businesses trying to sell them something or high rollers posting signs to boast about their civic-mindedness.

Ernie Martin was one of the two council members opposing Bill 78.

Martin says he’s in favor of eliminating bureaucratic obstacles to make it easier for private individuals, community organizations and businesses to donate money to spruce up city parks and facilities.

“But I don’t think the sponsorship should be in return for signs and recognition plaques that take away from what makes Hawaii so special,” he says.

Private citizens wanting to donate money to improve public facilities should do it with no demand for anything in return, Martin says, like his constituents with the non-profit Malama Pupukea Waimea foundation did when they raised $150,000 for a new basketball court at Pupukea Beach Park.

“They did not ask to be acknowledged. They did it because it was the right thing to do,” says Martin.

In my own neighborhood, commercial real estate investor Jay Shidler donated $511,555 to beautify Makalei Beach Park and Leahi Beach Park at the foot of Diamond Head and to maintain each park for a year. The city said it was the largest single gift it ever received from an individual to renovate an Oahu park.

But Shidler kept his name out of it.  You don’t see anything about Shidler on any sign in either park.

Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga also opposed the bill. She says it opens the door for private sponsorships not just at parks but also at the Blaisdell Center, where the city hopes to launch a $400-million dollar renovation project.

“There has been very little discussion about what the city plans to do with its renovations there. A private sponsor might offer the city money that’s not in the public interest. It’s worrisome.  The sponsorships need to be better defined,” says Fukunaga.

She is right. The concept of how sponsors would be acknowledged is wide open in the bill, with no limits on the plaques or “works of art” to recognize donors. The bill vaguely states,  “recognition should adhere to the aesthetic values and purposes of the city’s assets” and “sponsorship recognition must conform to all applicable laws and rules.”

And interestingly, the word “sign” never appears in the bill. Instead, a sponsor’s reward is called “a tangible acknowledgement and expression of gratitude” or “a physical form of sponsorship.” Talk about cloudy writing. Why not call a spade a spade?

Councilman Ikaika Anderson is drafting a new bill, expected to get a first hearing by the council on May 10, “to put to rest any community concerns.”

His proposal calls for a standardized plaque to honor sponsors who donate money to any of the city’s outdoor facilities.

Anderson says the standardized marker of recognition should be a pohaku exactly like the memorial to fishermen at Kaiona Beach Park in Waimanalo. That memorial is a bronze plaque mounted on a 7- by 4-foot lava boulder.

Councilman Ikaika Anderson says the memorial to fishermen at Kaiona Beach Park in Waimanalo could serve as a model for acknowledging sponsors of city parks and other facilities. Courtesy of Councilman Ikaika Anderson

“It is absolutely tasteful and appropriate. The group of Hawaiian uncles who designed it has a very high standard. If that monument doesn’t give a Hawaiian sense of place, I don’t know what does,” says Anderson.

Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, who co-authored the park sponsorship bill, said she supports more discussion about what sponsorship recognition should look like. She says, “Any sign should be low key. Something you don’t even see.”

That logic is bizarre. If you don’t see the marker of recognition, then why have one?

Community advocate Tiffany Vara spoke in favor of donor recognition markers when council members passed the bill Wednesday.

Vara is partnering with Alana Kobayashi, executive vice-president of  Kakaako luxury property developers Kobayashi Group, to raise $2 million dollars to build a new children’s playground in Ala Moana Beach Park.

The planned playground will feature equipment for every child, no matter how serious their physical or mental disability.

Vara says sponsorship recognition would make it easier to attract donors,

Her daughter, Abigail, was her inspiration to push for a playground where all the children of Hawaii of all ages and abilities can play together.

After Abigail suffered a brain injury in a swimming pool accident when she was 2, Vara says it broke her heart to see the little girl forced to sit alone on the sidelines at playgrounds, isolated because she lacked the ability to play with her brothers and other children. Abigail died when she was 13.

Vara says a sponsorship sign is valuable “to show the playground didn’t just drop out of the sky but was a dream made possible by people who cared enough to write a check, to participate. It creates a legacy, a sense of community.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell supports the notion of physical markers to honor donors. The deadline for him to sign or reject the bill is May 12.

Hearing Vara’s story almost makes me  want to change my mind about sponsorship recognition, but I still believe if a project is worthy enough for donors to embrace such as a playground for children of all abilities, they should do it out of a sense of love and charity, not because their name or their business name will be on a sign.

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