Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell continues to strongly back a $3 million children’s playground in what is now an open area within Ala Moana Park to be built via a public-private partnership with a small, newly formed nonprofit organization.

The mayor has defended the playground project despite strong pushback from organizations representing park users and the broader community.

In recent Civil Beat columns, veteran reporter Denby Fawcett described the questions and objections raised by critics about the choice of the heavily used beach park as the site for the playground. She also pointed out the direct ties between the nonprofit group behind the playground proposal, Paani Kakou, and developers of the ultra-luxury Park Lane condominiums just across the street at Ala Moana Center.

Public records, including campaign contributions going back as far as Caldwell’s successful 2012 mayoral campaign, underscore the interests represented by the officers of Paani Kakou, and suggest the basis and extent of the influence this small special interest group has with Mayor Caldwell and his administration.

It’s fair to say that if money buys political clout, then the board of Paani Kakou and the developers of Park Lane undoubtedly have a whole lot of political power and influence. The dollars flowing into the mayor’s past campaigns perhaps explain why he has remained so firmly behind the controversial project.

A rendering of the nonprofit Paani Kakou’s proposed playground, which it has promoted as a “world class playground” for children of all abilities.

Courtesy Paani Kakou

In a statement Thursday, Mayor Caldwell said the criticism against the park is “ludicrous.”

“The idea the city is allowing rich people to take over park land to build a luxury playground is ludicrous. Pa‘ani Kakou is raising money from all kinds of people to build this inclusive playground as a gift to the city,” Caldwell said.

“It will eventually be turned over to Parks and Recreation, and Pa‘ani Kakou should be thanked, not vilified.”

Following the money

The nonprofit “Paani Kakou” was only recently recognized by the IRS. It lists four directors in its registration filed with the state’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs – Tiffana Vara, Alana Kobayashi Pakkala, Ian MacNaughton, and Crystal Rose – all directly tied to Park Lane and its developers. Individually and collectively, they have been strong financial supporters of the mayor’s campaigns.

The developer of Park Lane, AMX Partners, LLC., was formed by the MacNaughton Group, Kobayashi Group, Blacksand Capital, and the owners of Ala Moana Center, General Growth Properties, later known as GGP Inc. GGP was taken over by Brookfield Property Partners LP, which formerly owned a minority interest in GPP, in a 2018 deal valued at nearly $15 billion.

Tiffany Vara has been spokesperson for Paani Kakou. Vara identified herself in written testimony submitted to the Honolulu City Council in April 2017 “as mother of five children, the youngest of whom acquired profound special needs after a brain injury at the age of two.”

Her husband, Ray Vara, is CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health. The couple own a unit at Park Lane now assessed for tax purposes at $3.7 million. Annual reports required to be filed with the state list Ray Vara as vice president of the Association of Apartment Owners of Park Lane. 

Ray Vara contributed $25,500 to state and local candidates between the beginning of 2012 and June 30, 2019, according to data published by the Campaign Spending Commission. That total included $5,500 contributed to Kirk Caldwell’s mayoral campaign.

Alana Kobayashi Pakkala is chief operating officer of the Kobayashi Group, one of the primary corporate members of AMX Partners. The Kobayashi Group was founded by her father, and is now controlled by Pakkala and her two brothers.

For several years, Pakkala has been jointly named by Mayor Caldwell and the city council to serve as chair of the selection committee which doles out the city’s community development block grants, city records show.

Pakkala’s husband, Donald Matthew Pakkala, is listed in campaign spending records as director of sales for Park Lane, and is a licensed real estate salesperson with Heyer & Associates, which was the real estate broker for Park Lane, according to the Final Developer’s Public Report filed with the state in 2014 and amended several times since.

The couple contributed a total of $47,000 of their own money to state and local candidates between 2012 and mid-2019, according to Campaign Spending Commission data.

Their total included $6,000 to Mayor Caldwell, along with $5,250 to Honolulu City Council member Kymberly Pine (now a candidate for mayor), $4,500 to former council member Trevor Ozawa, and $2,000 each to council members Ernie Martin and Ron Menor.

Other officers and employees of Heyer & Associates, the real estate firm, contributed $20,200 to candidates during the same 2012-2019 period, including $9,000 going to Caldwell’s campaign and another $4,000 to Councilmember Kymberly Pine. 

And other officers and employees of Pakkala’s company, Kobayashi Group, pumped even more cash into the political system. They contributed a total of $410,575 to candidates in the 2012-2019 period, including a whopping $53,000 to Mayor Caldwell.

They were also generous with their contributions to members of the city council, including Trevor Ozawa ($27,500), Ikaika Anderson ($20,900), Kymberly Pine ($19,250), Ernie Martin ($13,500), and Ron Menor ($9,000), with several other members receiving smaller amounts.

Ian MacNaughton is a director of MacNaughton Group, and a managing partner in BlackSand Capital, LLC., with Pakkala’s brother, BJ Kobayashi.

The two companies, MacNaughton Group and Blacksand Capital, along with their officers and employees, contributed a total of $231,800 to candidates during the 2012-2019 period, according to Campaign Spending Commission records. 

Mayor Caldwell’s campaign received $35,800, more than any other candidate.

A majority of Honolulu City Council members also received multiple contributions, including Kymberly Pine ($26,750), Trevor Ozawa ($26,600), Ikaika Anderson ($14,100), Ernie Martin ($13,000), Tommy Waters ($9,500), Ann Kobayashi ($5,000) and Ron Menor ($5,000).

Crystal Rose, the final officer of Paani Kakou, is an attorney and partner in the firm of Bays Lung Rose & Holma, which was the attorney for the Park Lane developers, according to the Public Report.

Rose contributed $4,000 to Caldwell’s 2016 reelection campaign, while other employees at Bays Lung Rose & Holma added another $10,600. In total, the law firm contributed $49,950 to state and local candidates during the 2012-2019 period, Campaign Spending Commission records show.

By my count, the campaign contributions to Mayor Caldwell linked to the directors of the nonprofit Paani Kakou came to a total of $123,900 during the 2012-2019 period, and their broader political influence (the implied “what we could do for you in the future if we really tried”) was likely much greater. 

A Legitimate Source Of Scrutiny

While current election laws put a cap on the amount any individual can contribute to a candidate’s campaign, it does not cap the aggregate amounts that can be given by groups of linked individuals or companies, as in the case of corporate officers and employees. As a result, the contributions reported here appear to have been perfectly legal.

Opponents say a large active playground, which would be sited in this grassy area of Ala Moana, isn’t a good fit for one of the city’s most heavily used and popular open spaces.

Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

But while the contributions were legal, it doesn’t follow that they are not a legitimate matter of public concern and scrutiny. This case of Paani Kakou is just a small local example of why the role that money has assumed in our system of elections and governing is of such widespread public concern.

When special interests make large campaign contributions to public officials, and then seek to influence the official actions and decisions of those same officials, it becomes difficult to convince the public that their elected and appointed representatives are looking out for the public’s interests and not simply those of campaign supporters.

Other commenters point out the playground proposal was developed behind the scenes in direct discussions between representatives of Paani Kakou and the city, without the benefit of normal public review and feedback, and “wasn’t a part of the EIS that got studied and evaluated.”

And critics have raised additional questions about the appropriateness of the location and design, the cost of ongoing operation and maintenance, as well as thorny issues stemming from the potentially conflicting interests of the public and the city’s private nonprofit partner. 

The nagging question is whether such a planning process was possible only because elected or appointed public officials gave special deference to the views or proposals of this tight group, all connected to the Park Lane development, who had all made substantial campaign contributions to the mayor and members of the city council.

At least one applicable law is the “fair treatment” provision of the city’s ethics code, part of the Honolulu City Charter.

Section 11-104 of the charter, titled “Fair and Equal Treatment,” provides that elected or appointed officials or employees of the city “shall not use their official positions to secure or grant special consideration, treatment, advantage, privilege or exemption to themselves or any person beyond that which is available to every other person.”

This should be a reminder that bending normal procedures to provide “special consideration, treatment, advantage, privilege or exemption,” whether to campaign supporters or to any other person, would be both a violation of the public’s trust and a violation of the code of conduct spelled out in the city charter. 

A version of this column appeared earlier in Ian Lind’s blog, iLind.

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About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for 15 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.