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 Mufi Hannemann, candidate for Honolulu mayor. The other candidates are Keith Amemiya, Rick Blangiardi, Duke Bourgoin, Ernest Caravalho, John Carroll, Karl Dicks, Tim Garry, Colleen Hanabusa, Choon James, 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?
Tourism is our core competence; it’s what we do best. Our history is filled with attempts to diversify the economy: high tech, diversified agriculture, science, telecommunications. None has become a major contributor. Instead of another diversification venture, in the short term, we should focus on supporting synergistic industries that build on tourism but diversify it at the same time, including sports, film and television production, regional cuisine and agriculture, education, culture and the arts, health and fitness, science, meetings and conventions, and other businesses that attract visitors and investment, while showcasing tourism through the natural resources of the islands.
Restarting tourism will focus on five areas:
• Restoring global air service, with an emphasis on attracting healthy travelers;
• Rebranding Hawaii through responsible and sustainable objectives;
• Placing a priority on public health and safety;
• Nurturing and sharing the aloha spirit, respecting the Hawaiian culture;
• Protecting our natural resources, maintaining our infrastructure, and upgrading our attractions, all for the benefit of residents and visitors.
Rail transit could also be a major economic catalyst for affordable housing, retail and industrial development, and other investment along its route, thereby creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs, as we’re already witnessing in Kakaako and will soon see in Kapolei, Leeward Oahu, and Kalihi.
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?
It is too soon to determine where, or if, city budget cuts will be necessary. I was mayor when we experienced the effects of the 2008 recession. We used a combination of budget reductions, salary reductions in the managerial ranks, hiring freezes, federal stimulus funds and other means to continue to provide essential public services without raising property taxes. We can also look at tapping into the rainy day fund to cushion some of the shortfalls.
As long as construction continues, there will be added funds in the city coffers due to increased real property tax revenue. A strong, vital building industry is key to be preserving jobs and as an economic stimulant. I will compile a list of construction proposals before the city that are poised to go and will look to review them expeditiously.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Oahu?
I have the benefit of hindsight and a front row seat in the current crisis, but I would have asked the governor to call for a meeting at the onset with the mayors and legislative leaders to develop a coordinated response to the pandemic, or any other crisis for that matter. We would have moved quicker to then consult with public health officials, the federal government, and state and county emergency management agencies to develop a comprehensive response strategy with each jurisdiction assigned responsibilities. We would not have to start from scratch; we have produced emergency response plans in the past, including one when I was mayor.
I would inform the public through a single authoritative source, with frequent updates on the status of the emergency, contact information, and other advice while refraining from piecemeal announcements.
In the case of a widespread business shutdown as we’re now experiencing, I would promptly establish working groups across all affected industries to develop a plan and timetable. These groups would communicate frequently to develop plans, devise standards and coordinate their efforts with government. Having such working groups would also enable us to gauge the needs of the unemployed and respond in other ways.
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?
The city’s neighborhood board system is one mechanism that exists to increase participation and communication between the community and city government. During my tenure, every board was represented by a member of the cabinet or senior staff who were required to attend the monthly meetings to listen to community concerns and share information regarding city policies and initiatives.
A mainstay of my terms as mayor was community-based planning, meaning we took steps to ensure that an affected community was informed of a project, involved in the planning and development, and kept apprised of its status. On projects of controversy or major impacts, I personally attended community briefings to engage in a dialogue with residents. It’s the tack we used for curbside recycling, sewer work, rail transit and transit-oriented developments, the Waimanalo Gulch landfill, and other proposed developments.
We also ensured that communities that might be adversely affected by a city project would receive a community benefits package to help offset some of the negative impact of a less-desirable project in their vicinity. As a councilman, I used a similar strategy when Home Depot was looking to locate on Oahu. I negotiated a community benefits package for my Pearl City district.
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?
The next mayor will inherit financial obstacles and obligations for the near-term, but I will hold true to the policy of fiscal discipline and responsible spending that distinguished my past mayoral tenure. While our economic struggles may cause some temporary delays, I’m confident the course I’ve charted will enable us to complete rail in a fiscally responsible manner and generate the money for the system’s operation and maintenance.
My immediate goal will be to urge the Federal Transit Administration to release all available funds for rail, while concurrently seeking other federal sources of infrastructure support, such as through the pandemic economic stimulus appropriations.
The city will place the highest priority on establishing public-private partnerships, with investors and developers along the rail route asked to contribute to fund elements of the transit line. Many of these areas have been lacking in improvements for decades, and its redevelopment will generate additional property tax revenues for the city to help support rail operations, including complementary modes of public transportation.
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?
As mayor, I initiated the cleaning and night-time closures of beach parks, beginning at Ala Moana and extending to Maili Beach Park to ensure our recreational areas are safe and available to the public.
At the same time, I called upon state government — which has the mandate and funding for social services, public health, and housing — to assume the lead by providing these services to the homeless, many of whom are suffering from drug abuse or mental health problems. I committed to have the city assist with the resources under its purview. This would be a coordinated, more cohesive effort, that would also involve the non-profits and others involved with homeless. Of late, there has been a more collaborative effort which is imperative given the current economic climate and the resulting loss of public funds.
As head of HLTA, we donated more than $2 million to social service agencies assisting the homeless and supporting programs to return homeless to their homes on the mainland. We also secured $2 million to provide to these nonprofits. I will continue these successful collaborations involving the city, state, businesses, and nonprofits.
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?
In the multicultural society that we call home, we have not yet had to reckon with the difficult topics of systemic racism and how it affects law enforcement in our communities. We have been fortunate to have never experienced an Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd type event that would have forced Honolulu to take a hard look at our local police force and its relationship with the community.
Despite this, we should not be complacent on the matter. Now is the time for an empathetic and receptive leader to work together with both the community and the Honolulu Police Department to identify ways to better hold ourselves accountable. Honolulu, and Hawaii as a whole, should strive to be a national leader on this issue. If elected mayor, I am committed to hearing from people on all sides of this debate and look forward to the progress that we will make on this issue.
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?
The city has one of the best public transportation systems in the nation, with TheBus and TheHandivan, and we should continue to support public transportation in conjunction with rail transit.
Cities in other parts of the world have adopted measures to alleviate congestion, such as congestion pricing, limiting vehicle access during specific hours, and restricting certain types of transportation-related activities. We could explore those punitive ideas, but I would much rather have a network, with rail eventually, that includes mini-buses, taxis and other means of transportation, that provides an alternative to the personal vehicle by taking people door-to-door quickly and efficiently. Only then will motorists give up their near-total reliance on personal vehicles and reduce congestion on our roads and highways.
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?
I don’t know what prompted the governor to suspend open-government laws. It is not something I would imitate because a concerned public has the right to know what its government is doing, particularly in a crisis. In fact, a crisis is a time when more information should be made available to the public so they know the who, what, when, where and why of their government’s actions.
10. What more should Honolulu be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
We in Hawaii appear to be taking steps to contribute solutions to climate change, among them an emphasis on renewable energy, electric vehicles, banning sunscreen chemicals that harm reef life, and so on. However, given that this is a global problem, and our current administration in Washington, D.C., appears to be aggressively sabotaging our environmental initiatives, I believe governors and mayors must work together to prepare for the impact of climate change. As a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I found that the organization provided an excellent forum for the exchange of ideas and information on a host of issues and responding to climate change would be among them.
We can collaborate with the federal and state governments and our congressional delegation to identify our priorities, set near- and long-term goals, and develop a plan of action and assigned responsibilities to achieve them, be they relocating infrastructure and utilities, having experts advise us on realistic courses of action, or other measures. We’re all facing the same challenge, and I see collaboration and cooperation as the best approach.
11. What other issue would you like to discuss here?
We are in an unprecedented, uncertain time. The pandemic, an economic crisis, record unemployment, plummeting tax revenues, and a host of challenges demand a mayor with proven leadership experience, a steady hand, and a solid record of accomplishment at City Hall.
This is not the time for on-the-job training for a rookie mayor who will be directing a multi-billion-dollar budget and a 10,000-employee workforce, while crafting solutions to our problems. During my tenure, I managed through the 2008-2009 financial crisis. By implementing prudent financial management and sound fiscal practices, including earmarking money for the rainy day fund and for long-term retiree health benefits, the city was actually able to obtain higher bond ratings.