The Honolulu City Council is so concerned about health hazards caused by mold and lead paint in the city hall building that council leaders plan on spending nearly $600,000 to move the legislative offices elsewhere.

Since being elected to office eight years ago, Council Chairman Ernie Martin said he has seen staff in his and other council members’ offices develop health issues while working in 90-year-old Honolulu Hale.

“When you only have one or two incidences you can leave them as isolated. When we’re continually having these serious health issues … it’s more than just a coincidence, it has to be taken more seriously,” he said. 

City Council Lobby area entrance at right located on 2nd floor Honolulu Hale. Many of the walls inside Honolulu Hale have lead paint and no drilling into the walls are allowed.
Many of the walls inside Honolulu Hale have lead paint and no drilling into the walls is allowed to avoid releasing lead. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There’s a reason staff at city hall never draw the curtains in the committee meeting room, where Honolulu City Council members meet to discuss bills and hear public testimony.

“If we were to draw those curtains, the dust that would be released in those curtains, lord knows what could be released,” Martin said. 

A 2012 report on hazardous material found in Oahu’s city hall offers some clues. The report catalogs places where mold is visible along door frames, walls and shelves. Sampling done for the report found lead in dust that flakes off paint on the building’s walls. 

The roughly 125 staffers in the city’s legislative branch might get a reprieve this year.

Martin put more than a half a million dollars – $532,405 – in the fiscal year 2019 legislative budget to rent office space elsewhere and $40,000 to move into the new space. The City Council unanimously passed the budget in June along with a capital budget that includes $2.1 million for upgrades to Honolulu Hale.

Robert Kroning, the city director of design and construction, said in an email that his department has a consultant planning upgrades to city hall. He said the renovations will contain the hazardous material but did not provide details.  

The city paid a company $250,000 in 2012 to scrape any peeling paint and encapsulate lead paint.

The council chamber, where the full council meets monthly and frequently hosts crowds of testifiers, got new carpeting and new paint during renovations that occurred between 2013 and 2014, according to Andrew Pereira, a spokesman for Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

Other piecemeal work to the building has been done, Kroning said in the email, but did not elaborate. Pereira said the work may have included stripping floor and ceiling tiles that contain asbestos and removing lead paint.

He also said the administration tries to ensure a safe environment for its employees and the public, and that custodians are trained to avoid scraping any paint or breaking tiles as they clean or do small repairs.

Honolulu Hale, Honolulu City Council Committee room with stains from water leaks on roof panels.
The Honolulu City Council committee room has stains from water leaks on roof tiles. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Honolulu Hale houses some executive offices. Others can be found scattered throughout Oahu, in Kapolei and in the Mayor Frank Fasi Municipal Building across the lawn from Honolulu Hale.

Unlike the legislative offices, the Caldwell administration does not have plans to move the executive offices out of City Hall or anticipate major renovations.

“As long as you’re not breaking the tiles or scraping out the paint then the health impacts, we’ve been told, are minimal,” Pereira said, adding he is not aware of staffers in executive branches getting sick as a result of the building’s conditions.

A refurbishment project might require that move, though. Pereira said construction could release the toxins embedded in paint and tiles.

 “It is an older building and it’s definitely something that the council and this administration and past administrations have had on the radar,” he said. “The situation is contained for now but, of course, every day the building gets older.”

Is Honolulu Hale A Relic?

Martin is eyeing Alii Place, a chic office building down the street from city hall that serves as headquarters for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, the agency that oversees the city’s rail project. HART set aside $1.1 million for rent in the upcoming fiscal year in Alii Place.

The city holds fee simple interest in Alii Place, which has vacant floor space to accommodate the legislative offices, Martin said.

'Do not Enter' sign requesting people not to enter the art exhibit area with the skylight and entrance area to Honolulu Hale. Honolulu Hale has many issues with water leaks and air conditioner issues.
A “Do Not Enter” sign keeps people from entering the art exhibit area in Honolulu Hale, which frequently hosts the work of local artists. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The legislative branch includes the Office of Council Services and the auditor’s office, but Martin specified in a budget amendment that added the funds that the auditor won’t be included in the move. The Office of Council Services declined to comment for this story and would not say how many employees it has.

If the legislative branch moves out of city hall, the switch could be permanent. Martin said the chamber for full council meetings is still suitable. But he said the council  has outgrown its committee meeting rooms – crowds of people wanting to testify sometimes stand in the foyer area of the committee room due to lack of space.

With its California-Spanish style facade, airy courtyard and balcony, Martin said Honolulu Hale would serve Oahu well as a museum. Its location along King Street near Iolani Palace and the King Kamehameha Statue would make it a destination for visitors strolling past, and the city has archived artwork waiting to be put on display, Martin said.

Martin envisions the Royal Hawaiian Band performing concerts in the building’s courtyard, where the sound would reverberate along the building’s corridors.

“It’d be nice to have Honolulu Hale as a featured asset to support our community,” Martin said.

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