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 Ho Yin (Jason) Wong, 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, Choon James, Audrey Keesing, Micah Mussell, Kymberly Pine and Bud Stonebraker.
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?
Pandemic and civil unrest serve as a wake-up call to Oahu business operators. We cannot rely on one industry to sustain our economy growth. We have to re-invent Oahu as the “Geneva of the Pacific” where we leverage our geographical advantage and proximity to Asian countries. Singapore is a country that has low-to-no natural resources, yet Singapore is one of the most resilient financial and business hubs in the world due to its robust and competitive business-friendly environment. The Oahu business environment should be reformed to attract and accommodate good-standing local, national and international businesses to co-develop additional industries such as trades, transport exchange hub, IT, manufacturing for electronic/hardware components, medical, pharmaceutical and chemical industries.
Oahu tourism will gain traction once the state lifts the quarantine requirement and screening and testing can be performed at the departure origin before boarding. Hawaii’s 120-day animal quarantine rule has kept our island animals’ rabies-free. Once we apply the same restricted measure to inbound travelers, I don’t see any reason why Oahu would not be the No. 1 safest destination for global and healthy travelers to visit. The Oahu tourism industry will bounce back many folds.
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?
Almost all taxes within the city’s jurisdiction need to be lower. For example, the property tax should be lowered further. Any additional savings of taxes will put more disposable income into taxpayers’ pockets. Some of that savings may turn into term deposit, while most of us may use some of that money on products and services, like hosting a dinner party, buying gifts, doing home improvements around – all these transactions will drive local business operators to expand and hire more workers. In economics, this is called “positive spillover effect.”
I am an economist by the heart. Free economy with the least amount of government control is the most viable way to rebuild the economy. Furthermore, city administration needs to be consolidated and trimmed down by privatization where tasks and assignments can be an open bidding contract that give first priority to good-standing, local small business operators.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Oahu?
First and foremost, at any port of entry (cruise ship terminal or airport), all inbound passengers are subject to testing and screening upon arrival. All inbound travelers will be transported to quarantine housing to wait for result. Upon receiving the lab report, any positive patients will be sent for treatment, the rest will be released from the quarantine housing. This process will stop the majority of viral carriers from spreading in our community, yet the test result waiting period is generally shorter than the current 14-day quarantine period. Tourists and residents should understand the rationale behind this mandatory protocol — and to the local community, we will have more reassurance that no new viral carrier is being re-introduced. This also avoids unnecessary lockdown.
Being a Honolulu mayor, my job is to align city officials to co-develop a “business continuity plan” with business operators in Oahu to serve as a go-to reference guide on continuing business operation by minimizing health risks to employees and customers. To shut down our economy in this unprecedented way, Oahu cannot afford to go through another economic meltdown. Instead, we learned what we did well (masks, social distancing, staggered work shift schedule, senior shopping hours) and should have all island business operators fully adopt such guideline if there were another pandemic hit the global scale. This business continuity plan will be no difference from a hurricane preparation guidebook: Hope for the best, yet prepare for the worst.
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?
Our underground infrastructure and roadways have been neglected and overlooked for years. Band-Aid fixes would be a waste of money, manpower and resources. I don’t think any resident will complain about seeing city administration fixing potholes, repaving poor road surfaces, upgrading storm-drainage/sewage piping and capacity to stop leakage/overflow, building barriers to avoid flash flooding to high-risk area/road, and many more aging/obsolete essential infrastructure that taxpayer money should be used for.
This is something I never understand: Why are there so many public projects that the public need, yet the administration has procrastinated on them for years? If my four-year tenure of being Honolulu mayor could well address all these public utility upgrade and roadwork issues, that would be very productive. My motto is: Fix what is broken before digging up more problems.
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?
HART is a transportation network that the majority of Oahu residents do not want. I would not entertain the idea of sinking any more public funding to this project without any financially self-sustainable, realistic and actionable blueprint in place. However, I have conceived a number of creative solutions (pending on reviewing structural integrity and state/federal regulations and requirements) that can change the purpose of the rail to serve additional purposes:
• Install pre-fabricated homeless shelters like a tree-house on top of the rail to get homeless population off the ground;
• Build correctional facility on top of the rail to solve the overcrowding situation;
• Build a high-tech, next-generation technology institute (i.e. Honolulu Institute of Technology) on top of the rail where students will board the train to travel from lecture-hall/station to lecture-hall/station;
• Build concert hall, shopping arcade, sport complex, track and field, lap pool, and bike and jogging path on the track/station as the newest attraction for locals and tourists;
• Create outdoor market, retail stores, open air cafe, eateries, bars and wedding chapels on top of the rail — an innovative idea that was conceived in Venice many centuries ago where some bridges were constructed with indoor shops, and housing on top of the canal.
In psychology, most human brains are focusing on the black-dot of a piece of paper, very few people will be focusing on the white area. The HART project started out like a curse to the Oahu community, yet with a spin of creativity, I am trained to turn a lemon into lemonade.
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 are two types of homelessness: temporary and occupational. While we are living in a limited budget, limited resource universe, we have prioritize which at-risk group should be our first focus. In my opinion, resource should be dedicated to assist temporary homeless individuals to get them back to our local workforce. A career and skill development center and an on-the-job training program are examples that can help these temporary homeless individuals acquiring/upgrading marketable skills.
We house these temporary homeless individuals in safe, hygienic temporary shelters (short term vacation rental properties may be considered here), train them and redeploy them to the work force. Upon securing job placement, the individual will be paying back the temporary housing, training expense to the city in installments – this money will be used to fund the next temporary homeless individual. This back-to-work city program should be self-sustainable financially. Our at-risk group career retraining program is only available for Oahu homeless residents who have filed income tax in the past to the State of Hawaii.
As for homeless individuals who were sent to Oahu from out-of-state agencies, we will send these people back to their home State, or if the law permitted, we can invite them to join the military service to serve our great nation.
For occupational homeless individuals, they will be put in mandatory community service programs (i.e. hiking trails, parks and beach cleanup, public facility maintenance and cleaning, graffiti removal, gum on sidewalk removal, city landscaping) to earn a meal ticket and shelter.
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 cannot use one incident to measure across the board without understanding the background elements. Honolulu is a diverse community. “Cultural mosaic” is Oahu’s harmonious social norm. Though there may be bad apples in any situation, and these bad apples may hide behind a collective bargaining agreement and powerful union who may grant them immunity from getting the job terminated from any wrongdoings. I am a strong advocate to break away from the union contract and have individual law enforcement personnel being evaluated on their performance, crime-solving and crime-prevention efforts as their total compensation matrix. The union’s collective bargaining power, and over-protected job tenure deteriorate the quality and performance of the police force.
The reform and overhaul effort should not be focus on police department operation, it’s the union that handcuffed city administrators and oversight committee from kicking out bad apples in the force. Performance-based job and salary reviews increase morale, work ethic and efficiency.
Not accepting any union endorsement nor special interest group’s donation enables me to exercise an unbiased and neutral decision-making process on behalf of the majority of Oahu residents’ best interests.
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?
In Hong Kong, besides public bus, taxi and metro lines, there is one more popular transportation system: privatized mini-van transportation network. Each mini-van vehicle offers 14-18 seats. The route is very specific pending on demand of the passengers. Once a mini-van is loaded up with 60-90 percent (during peak hours, 100 percent) of passengers, the mini-van will depart and make way to the destination. On the way, passengers can request stop-over at allowable median/shoulder of any curb/road/lane as long as it is part of the route. This mini-van system enables passengers to get from point A to point B almost like driving without worrying about parking and traffic. It is much faster than public bus travel, at a much lower fare than hiring a taxi.
In Oahu, some of our roads are narrow, public buses cannot get through and it is cost prohibitive to provide too many routes. On the other hand, the mini-van footprint is much smaller than the public bus, it can also access some remote areas as long as the route has enough ridership. This mini-van network will be operated by private operators and their operation license will be reviewed, issued and audited by city administration. The fare price will be set by the private operators based on demand. This also alleviates highway traffic. Furthermore, this mini-van network can connect to rail stations in the future to take passengers to popular destinations without any further massive spending on building track, stations, land acquisition, etc.
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?
My former executive role was chief governance and information officer. Governance, compliance and audit were my main line of duties. Being the Honolulu mayor, there would be very little say about what the state governor could or could not do, but from the city level, under my directive, I strongly support full disclosure and transparency: The public has the right to know about the decision-making process.
Acknowledging and tackling any issue with open-air discussion with the community will achieve long-term, viable, harmonious permanent solutions on many long-overdue social problems that are confronting us now due to procrastination.
10. What more should Honolulu be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
Global sea level and temperature rising — devastating acts of nature — will be getting more severe. There is very little we can do to stop or reverse the damages that our predecessors have inflicted on Earth through centuries of man-made pollution and deforestation. In Oahu, we have to recognize, one day, the Waikiki shoreline, Kahala neighborhood and North Shore waterfront will be under the water. Yet our island is blessed with mountain ranges and valleys. Our next 10-20 years should be spent planning and moving our infrastructure and roadwork more inland to prevent catastrophic impact to our residents and local businesses.
11. What other issue would you like to discuss here?
In my campaign website, I have shared my visions, such as a seven-day work week for high-demand city departments, airport valet parking service, biodegradable plastic, cat island colony attraction, Chinatown daily night market, cross-departmental audits, cross-departmental training and knowledge transfer, a cultural exchange program, a first-time homebuyer program, a honeymooners and tourists spending credit program, Honolulu Institute of Technology, in-town baggage check-in service, pandemic-proof continuity business plan, privatization, vacation rental, virtualized driver license renewal process and city appointment virtual in-take process, zoo safari attractions, and many more.