Whatever the true intentions of Honolulu leadership may be, city officials appear unmoved, disinterested and sluggish in their public response to mounting accusations of wrongdoing. Yet transparent government has nothing to hide, and democratically elected leaders by definition are supposed to be responsive public servants, not stonewalls.
Public perception and trust means everything in a free society such as ours. “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving just powers from the consent of the governed,” the Declaration of Independence reminds us.
Stoicism by Honolulu leadership is a bad look, and instead of coming across as authoritative or in-control, city officials look like a guilty junta covering their tracks.
Elected officials often think in terms of what will hurt or harm their re-election chances, or even their future pursuits of higher office. But there is a greater cost that society pays for non-responsive government, and it comes in the form of an erosion of trust and order. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates that when authority figures act without restraint, those subject to authority will likewise cast off restraint.
A citizenry that perceives its government as corrupt cannot be expected to respect their fellow citizens, their government or the law. It’s time to put a stop to the cancer on our city; the buck stops at Honolulu Hale.
Face The People, Take Responsibility
Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the Honolulu City Council need to stop thinking of recent scandals as isolated and compartmentalized incidents. They may concern different matters, but they are all blemishes on the same face of our city’s competence and credibility. Before any new developments emerge, before any further questions of integrity arise, before the situation can get any more complicated, city leaders need to face the people.
Honolulu leaders need to take a leadership cue from NASA’s Eugene Kranz, who in the wake of the disastrous Apollo fire, immediately went to his staff and said, “Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up … Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!'”
The city is going to need a massive jolt of peer pressure if any of us are to see credibility restored in Honolulu.
Honolulu should never tolerate carelessness, incapacity and neglect in our government. This is not a blame that any of our elected officials can deflect to others; they alone must take responsibility for themselves and our city.
For years, the public has been shouting “Dammit, stop!” to Honolulu Hale, only to be dismissed, but now our city is embroiled in scandal. To me, that looks like Honolulu government is on the wrong side of an “I told you so.”
So how do we move forward?
To begin, Mayor Caldwell needs to arrange a joint press conference with the City Council in front of Honolulu Hale. In no uncertain terms, the mayor must declare he and his colleagues value the trust of Honolulu residents; that they are concerned about perceptions of fraud, waste, and abuse; and that all means will be taken to demonstrate the City and County of Honolulu is moving forward in the right direction.
Each council member needs to affirm the same, and commit to holding a “mother of all town halls” — type meeting where citizens can put each and every single one of them together on the spot to answer any questions or concerns about our city. The people of Honolulu need a catharsis to empty out their doubts, fears and in some cases, rage against the perceived dysfunction of our city.
Honolulu needs to see and hear that its elected officials are not crooks. Confession is good for the soul. If mistakes were made, let’s admit them and fix them. If people in positions of trust or authority failed, we need to commit to removing them. If laws were broken, justice needs to be served.
How To Get The Leadership We Deserve
The city is going to need a massive jolt of peer pressure if any of us are to see credibility restored in Honolulu. This will require every single Honolulu voter contacting their council member to demand a public statement and town hall. If we can’t make them see the light, Honolulu leadership needs to feel the fire.
Hawaii’s congressional delegation also needs to play an active role in preserving the rule of law and accountable government back home. Our delegation has been quick to use the bully pulpit to engage esoteric matters ranging from Jussie Smollett to Michael Cohen, yet they are strangely mum over Honolulu’s wave of subpoenas and federal investigations.
If Attorney General Clare Connors has the sense to ask the Hawaii Supreme Court to suspend Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro because he is the target of a federal investigation, surely our four congressional members can at the minimum co-sign a letter to Mayor Caldwell and Council Chair Ann Kobayashi expressing concern over the credibility crisis in Honolulu.
If presidential candidate Gabbard wants to drain the swamp in Washington, perhaps she should get some practice first draining the swamp in Oahu.
Honolulu residents deserve a credible, transparent government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Let’s do this.
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues
Not a subscription
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.
Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.