Even in a place as small as Oahu, the community experience vastly differs depending on where you live or work.
In Honolulu proper, one finds all the traditional problems of a major city, including pollution, overcrowding, traffic congestion and crime. Drive a few miles up to Kailua, and it feels like a different island.
Kaneohe Bay in Windward Oahu — would this part of the island be better served by its own county government instead of one that is Honolulu-centric?
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Some dismiss the idea as crazy, but fragmentation of our highly centralized municipal government might actually be the best way to improve local outcomes.
As someone who works downtown but lives in Waipahu, I occupy vastly different worlds by day and night. The 17 miles between my home and workplace could just as easily be a thousand miles of separation because the people, the geography and especially the issues that matter contrast sharply.
On Oahu, there is an ongoing tug-of-war between rural and urban, tourism and privacy, and development and conservation. These conflicts are sharpened by the fact that one city rules our island, as our City Council and mayor often think monopolistically.
For example, at both Honolulu Hale and the State Capitol, mainland consultants regularly pitch a concept called “urban density” to policymakers, the idea being that there are benefits to more people living in a city.
That kind of planning is fine if you’re only representing the “Blade Runner”-like megapolis that is downtown or Waikiki, but for those living in rural or suburban areas, being piled one upon another or having the forest mowed down is just annoying.
To say that the centralized municipal government running Oahu is out of touch would be an understatement.
Honolulu’s government is great at political activism, but terrible at meeting the needs of our communities. The recent attempt by some council members to turn Honolulu into a “sanctuary city” is an example of this problem, where some Oahu residents may have been scratching their heads over what that proposal had to do with their day-to-day local needs.
Yes, many Oahu residents do sympathize with the plight of undocumented immigrants, but that’s an esoteric, national issue unnecessarily invoked at the municipal level. More pressing local concerns involve things like having clean public areas, safe streets or even modern sewage systems.
Decisions made at Honolulu Hale aren’t necessarily in the best interest of people islandwide.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The City and County of Honolulu has donned a super-hero cape to fight global climate change. But in places like Waipahu, one has to wonder how we can save the world when we can’t keep trash in the trash cans. Real environmentalists always pick up the trash. Remember that.
To say that the centralized municipal government running Oahu is out of touch would be an understatement. We need responsive government right in the community where things are happening and where every person is a stakeholder.
Dividing Oahu into smaller counties would immediately give more power to the residents in each area and give people a reason to get involved. More importantly, it would put more tax money back into each community, as every part of the island could essentially determine what level of taxation would be appropriate for the government services needed there.
If Kailua residents want stricter regulations concerning vacation rentals or the environment, a Kailua county government could adopt them without inconveniencing residents in places like Pearl City or Waipahu. Government should always be scaled and appropriate for what people in each region need, rather than serving as a one-size-fits-all monopoly enforcer.
This also would reduce the power of special interests who often play a game of electoral checkers by stacking our City Council with people fixated on a single niche policy. With multiple counties, elected officials are more accountable to smaller populations whose ire against government non-responsiveness or indifference can be felt more palpably.
As a conservative, I do get it that making more counties would mean more government and more elected officials, but I also find it preferable to have the power of municipal planning kept at a much smaller, tighter level. Call me cynical, but even the inevitable corruption or incompetence that can be expected of government is partially offset by the fact that these people, when they mess up, will have smaller things to ruin.
Splitting up Oahu might just be the bold action we need to get things working around here again. A little revolution, now and then, is a good thing, isn’t it?
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Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist, a proud union shop steward, 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.