Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 8 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
The following came from Choon James, candidate for Honolulu mayor. The other candidates are Keith Amemiya, Rick Blangiardi, Duke Bourgoin, Ernest Caravalho, John Carroll, Karl Dicks, Tim Garry, Colleen Hanabusa, Mufi Hannemann, Audrey Keesing, Micah Mussell, Kymberly Pine, Bud Stonebraker and Ho Yin (Jason) Wong.
1. Oahu’s economy has been hard hit with the outbreak of the coronavirus and measures to prevent its spread, mainly because of the collapse of the tourism industry. Should we continue to rely largely on the visitor industry for economic vitality? What concrete steps would you take to bring tourism back? What else would you do to diversify the island’s economy?
The tourism count was pushed to over 10 million last year despite growing negative sentiments from residents about natural resources and infrastructural capacities.
Obviously, it’s not smart to solely place the economy into one tourism basket. Diversification is compulsory. But tourism will continue to be part of Oahu’s economy. We must effectively screen tourists entering Oahu given the COVID-19 situation. The city must coordinate with the state to ensure that quarantine guidelines are adhered to and enforced.
Hoteliers must protect our workforce’s working conditions. We must expect employers to provide ample equipment to ensure a safe and hygienic environment for our workers.
Additionally, public health and sanitation is paramount. Basic facilities like public restrooms must be open and clean. This includes bus stations, vehicles, parks and so on. The city received about $378 million from the federal CARES Act. These funds can assist businesses with retrofitting facilities and other needed supplies to ensure smooth commercial operations.
Many residents already have diversified enterprises of their own. The city can further support and encourage such entrepreneurship. The best the city can do is to allow our residents the freedom and not burden our residents with escalating taxes and fees.
2. As the economy struggles, the city may have to cut expenses and seek new revenue sources. What would you cut? And what is an area where you see potential new revenue?
I’ve been attending City Hall hearings for decades and for the past 12 years, I’ve focused on fiscal accountability besides good governance.
I will first meet with each department. Together we will review the major budget items with a fine-tooth uku comb, keeping the needs of our city personnel and residents first. One of the biggest components of our city budget is our debt service.
As mayor, I will work with HART/City Council to stop the rail at Middle Street. Portions of the route from Middle Street to Ala Moana are projected to be in the Honolulu Sea Level Rise Inundation Zone. Why should we continue to throw scarce money into it?
Discretionary projects and expenses may be on hold for one or two fiscal cycles, if needed. Pork and pay-to-play expenses that may be present will be eliminated.
I see 2021 as a year to rebound and revitalize. I would use 2021 to concentrate on how we can better prosper our residents, businesses and other related service sectors. I want the city to deliver core city services to our residents effectively and efficiently without new fees or higher taxes. Core basic city services also include clean and safe streets, parks, and public restrooms.
The negative COVID-19 impacts placed on our local and global economy are significant. Creating new revenues sources must still be discussed thoughtfully.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Oahu?
Coming from Singapore and having carefully observed what the Asian countries have done to quickly address COVID-19, I would have managed it a little differently.
I would have a constant dialogue with Oahu to explain decisions and actions to cut down on the angst, frustrations and confusion. I would work closely with the state to ensure that the quarantine was enforced more efficiently. I would not exploit our residents with photos of me handing out food and masks to them. Instead I would have the city compensate small businesses/nonprofits/community health centers to help provide food and social services to needy residents on a regular basis in their own communities.
I would also concentrate on public health and sanitation. Public restrooms must be sanitized and open. Our essential workers must be protected with proper equipment and materials. I would not raid the homeless but instead instill COVID-19 precautions.
The city received $378 million and also has the rainy day fund. As mayor, I would quickly and efficiently disperse funds to residents/businesses/nonprofits to help start up again. Right now, the focus must be our residents, jobs creation, economic opportunities and supporting farmers to provide food sustainability at the basic level. We will overcome. Our people are resilient and live aloha!
4. Oahu residents, government officials and developers have often been split over efforts to build new projects like renewable energy facilities, recreational complexes or even affordable housing. What would you do to make sure important projects are successful while respecting community input and concerns?
Controversies usually arise when decision-makers ignore the affected residents’ concerns. I was arrested along with a former AP photographer while documenting the Kahuku turbines protest on Oct. 18, 2019. Two-hundred residents were arrested during the month-long protests. (The judge dismissed our case.) Kahuku residents had voiced their opposition for nearly 10 years but were ignored. The regulatory agencies violated their own rules and laws to appease the international corporate companies. What were the residents to do?
Hawaii has one of the best environmental review laws in the nation. It’s a proven and tested review process that provides due process to the most affected parties. Chapter §343-1 finds that “the process of reviewing environmental effects is desirable because environmental consciousness is enhanced, cooperation and coordination are encouraged, and public participation during the review process benefits all parties involved and society as a whole.”
If these environmental review laws are not adhered to, we could all wake up one morning to read that there will be a nuclear plant next door to us.
Whatever the project is, environmental, social and economic justice must be part of the equation. Our residents must be heard and their concerns must be taken into consideration. Solutions can be found when people are treated fairly and justly.
5. How should the city pay for the operation and maintenance of rail once it’s built? Do project plans or financing plans need to be changed as the economy struggles in the wake of the pandemic?
Currently HART controls the contract, and it has not and will not give info on the “affordability limits.”
When Singapore shuts down its rail in the evening, a crew of engineers, mechanics, cleaners and repairmen appear to service the operations. I have not heard about this cost aspect in any rail conversations except varying O&M costs.
It’s time to stop rail at Middle Street. Portions of the route from Middle Street to Ala Moana are projected to be in the Honolulu Sea Level Rise Inundation Zone. This is not a new concept. Mayor Caldwell suggested this idea a few years ago. Modern options can branch out from Middle Street thereon.
There are predictable ways to finance this rail – through a public-private partnership, property taxes, fare box income, or floating bonds that are still borrowed money. P3 for a public project such as this is problematic because private corporations have laws that protect open books. We cannot allow HART to give the public store away without transparency.
We need to control the fiscal accounting of this project. As mayor, I would exert all my influence to prevent our Oahu residents from being over-taxed. I would invite the FTA to Oahu to effectuate stopping rail at Middle Street. COVID-19 has changed conventional rapid transit concepts drastically.
6. Homelessness remains a problem on Oahu. What would you do differently from what the current leadership is doing? Do you support the enforcement of laws targeted at unsheltered homeless people such as the sit-lie ban? Why or why not?
There will always be the poor among us. How we treat the most vulnerable is an indication of who we are as a society. We know that some are houseless due to drug addiction and mental challenges and thus appropriate treatment is needed. Some prefer to live independently here in our nice weather rather than on the mainland. Others simply cannot make enough to pay for the high rents.
I would increase the rental inventory as quickly as possible through various options.
I have consistently testified against the initial sit-lie bills. No, I do not agree with the sit-lie ban unless there are options available to the houseless. Otherwise, it’s simply scattering the houseless from one area to the next. It’s also a waste of city funds. I’ve been told a raid can cost $50,000-$100,000. Then there are the legal settlements due to violations of civil rights.
I would work with the houseless themselves as well as ACLU to come to an agreement on how best to keep our streets and public places clean, safe and open for all to enjoy. The situation is not good for the houseless and not good for the public.
7. Recent deaths of citizens at the hands of police are igniting protests and calls for reform across the country, primarily aimed at preventing discrimination against people of color. What should be done to improve policing and police accountability in Honolulu? Should oversight of the police department be strengthened or reformed?
We love our HPD. We want them to return each time they leave for work. Most are conscientious and cognizant.
I was inspired to see the mass at the Capitol and Ala Moana Beach. Those that I talked with were clear in their mind that fairness and civil rights matter. No human being should be robbed of their lives and justice in those horrific cases.
There is always a need to assess in any organization. There must be accountability. When I was arrested at the Kahuku turbines protests, I asked for a presentation at a Honolulu Police Commission meeting. Chair Loretta Sheehan and some of those arrested had a meaningful dialogue on balancing free speech, civil rights and law and order. Regular training for HPD is always encouraged.
I also wrote about having an LRAD – Long-range Accoustic Device – at the Sherwoods Forest protests that involved children and kupuna. I appreciated HPD not using the LRAD as a sound system at Kalaeloa and Kahuku during the wind turbines protests.
Our HPD are also our community members. I have every confidence that matters can be worked out to benefit all.
8. Honolulu has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation. Some see rail as part of the solution. What else should the city do to alleviate congestion?
COVID-19 produced an iconic traffic photo. Who has not seen the aerial photo of the hundreds of rental cars parked at the Aloha Stadium? That one photo revealed a contributing factor to Oahu’s traffic woes – the amount of rental cars on the road each day.
Residents were so happy cruising on roads and highways during the shutdown. It reminded them of bygone years when the tourism numbers had not hit the million mark.
Unfortunately, the Honolulu rail is slated to only provide about 2 percent of traffic relief.
In places like Singapore, the transportation department knows exactly the amount of existing cars on the island. Do we? Oahu has places that are not accessible by buses or rail. The topography is also different from one area to the next. Some residents prefer to live in rural areas.
I’m not an expert in public transportation. I could hire a professional to answer this question or other questions with a textbook answer. Experts and our residents should have the opportunity to share their “in the trench” knowledge in this decision-making as well. COVID-19 has changed the status quo. It’s time for robust dialogue again! We will yet see more modernized transportation options available.
9. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Gov. David Ige suspended the open government laws under an emergency order during the pandemic. Do you agree or disagree with his action? What would you do to ensure the public has access to open meetings and public records in a timely fashion?
We absolutely must have open public records. I’m concerned however that it’s not always easy to access them. The highest amount I had to pay for FOIA – Freedom of Information Act – information was about $2,000 from the city. This cost places undue burden on our residents. The public should be able to videotape or photograph or scan documents without being charged.
I do not agree with Gov. Ige suspending the open government laws under the COVID-19 Emergency Order. At times like this, more transparency is needed, not less.
I was cited on April 27, 2020, while videotaping Magic Island’s $2.4 million renovation that removed mature trees. It’s ironic that construction could be performed but the public could not document it. I was to appear in court on June 23 but it has been delayed to Oct. 13.
Many of us have been talking about distance testimony for years. COVID-19 has shown that it’s possible!
As mayor, I would post all the names of people or groups who I meet with at the end of each week. I will meet and answer any questions with both the good and bad news. I will not hide behind press releases. The Office of the Mayor is a public office and belongs to the people.
10. What more should Honolulu be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
Climate change not only encompasses sea level changes and threats to reefs; the multiplier effects could include longer periods of hurricane seasons or rain patterns or cloud cover that could impact vegetation and cause flooding.
The Office of Climate Change and Sustainability has expended much effort in this area. It has been making presentations to the public and has produced significant guidelines and educational materials for the public. These works are helpful and valuable.
The time to start preparing is now. We need to remember that we live on an island in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. I have friends who live in Tuvalu and Kiribati and it’s sobering to see the changes. We also import 90 percent of our food.
We will meet with all departments/agencies to synchronize all the city projects and land-use decisions. We will engage with Civil Defense and Emergency Preparedness and others to proactively address these factors to prepare and act for the future.
11. What other issue would you like to discuss here?
I’ve been a successful small businesswoman for 34 years. I’ve been involved at City Hall for decades. I’m very concerned that Oahu has an oligarchy that holds the power, money and opportunities at the expense of our residents. I don’t buy it that the same politicians and insiders that have put us in this situation are now saying that they care about us and want to fix the problems and direct our future.
Our residents have to work two to three jobs to put food on the table, our seniors have to delay their retirement to survive and the houseless situation is not improving. We need paradigm shifts in our society.
I’m running for mayor because we want to put residents first. I do not accept donations from lobbyists and PACs. I don’t owe anybody anything. This is the year for us to take the government back and make it work for us, the ordinary people.
Among other improvements to City Hall, I want to stop rail at Middle Street. I want to place a property tax cap for our kupuna who have owned their homes for 20 years or more.
It does not matter whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, rich or poor, young or old, unionized or not, military or civilian, we can help each other. We must all work together to ensure a safe, happy, prosperous and sustainable future for our children.