Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 3 General 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 Esther Kia’āina, candidate for Honolulu City Council District 3 representing Ahuimanu, Heeia, Haiku, Kaneohe, Maunawili, Kailua, Olomana, Enchanted Lake and Waimanalo. The other candidate is Greg Thielen.
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?
While tourism will always be part of our overall economy, we should not go back to an unsustainable arrival count that pre-existed the coronavirus pandemic. We need to find the right balance with the number of tourists each island can sustain and the quality of tourism experience we seek to provide. This balance will be our greatest challenge, but I believe we can do it. The success of alternative industries and jobs that we can create to mitigate the loss in revenues from a decrease in tourism will help us meet this challenge. Any resumption of tourist arrivals without quarantine will require the strictest health and safety measures to protect our tourism industry workers and all of us.
Economic diversification will require a mix of supporting current industries (construction, federal) and helping core industries that are economically hurting (agriculture, small businesses). To stimulate diversification, we must also be supporting new sectors like technology, green, aina aloha and energy-efficient industries, and aquaculture with the necessary policies and funding to make a difference effectively.
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?
We should avoid making cuts across the board because of the detrimental effect they could have on essential city services. Cuts should be balanced with other goals to improve the existing capacity for city services and build efficiency within essential programs.
As we have a growing need for affordable housing and a short supply of housing in urban areas, I will consider increasing the real property tax rate for non-resident investors and a residential vacancy tax to raise county revenues and reinforce our commitments to making more affordable housing units available for local families who need it most.
Finally, federal funding related to the pandemic should be prioritized and leveraged with local and state funds to provide support for essential housing, food, transit, and workforce training and diversification.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Oahu?
I believe closer coordination and communications among the governor, the lieutenant governor, the mayor, the congressional delegation and the leaders of the Legislature at the outset could have helped in the decision-making process and information being shared with the public.
In addition, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for the self-employed, gig workers and independent contractors should not have taken as long to set up as compared to the general unemployment program as both were authorized under the federal CARES Act. It caused a lot of unnecessary pain to individuals and families with poor information on whether they were eligible or not.
Also, the various proclamations and memoranda from the mayor and the governor are confusing for people and businesses. More attention should be paid to presenting this information in a concise and understandable manner.
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?
It is not enough to simply rely on state and county laws and rules to move public projects forward. The public and affected communities need to be consulted early and often before agencies make program and funding commitments. Failure to include the community at the early onset of a project increases unnecessary tension and can lead to the failure of the project. In addition, location of projects is key. That is the crux of many of the contentious projects that we are seeing.
I believe there is a need for county and state leaders to help in the identification of public and private property suitable for these projects to avoid the delay caused by poor planning and lack of community consultation.
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 cost of rail operation and maintenance should be considered in the larger context of the benefits it provides, like reducing the cost of owning and operating single-occupancy vehicles, reducing wasted space for parking, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, designing healthy and walkable communities, and providing opportunities for affordable housing.
The city should maximize the collection of property taxes for properties around rail stations which will increase in value, while ensuring that planning and zoning around rail stations take sustainability and affordable housing into account. The city can maximize property tax revenue around rail stations by investing in public infrastructure and having a permitting system that allows proposed development that meets community requirements to move forward expeditiously.
The city’s fiscal plans should take into account current and future needs. The rail project needs to be completed as planned —20 miles, 21 stations. To do otherwise would waste significant monies and efforts already spent by the city, state and taxpayers. Currently, the 0.5 percent on the GET will fund only capital improvement. Voters may decide to extend that tax to help subsidize operations in the future — in addition to increased property tax revenues expected from increased property values around rail stations. The GET is paid not only by residents but also by tourists and visitors to Oahu. This helps spread the tax burden to all users of the transit system.
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?
The sit-lie ban doesn’t solve our problems. It only highlights a larger symptom which is homelessness, a lack of affordable housing and living-wage jobs, and a lack of health care and human services. Solving the larger problem requires a coordinated effort among local, state, and federal governments, in addition to participation and support by businesses and not for profits.
The sit-lie law only works to the extent that it connects people experiencing homelessness with services to get them back on their feet. The city has a strong role to play in connecting homeless to job opportunities, shelters, and housing.
In addition to the wrap-around services needed, increasing our temporary and permanent housing units has to be part of the solution. This dovetails with the need for increasing the number of affordable housing units statewide for everyone.
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?
Any form of discrimination, including of color, has no place in our society and we need to make sure that there are laws and mechanisms in place to ensure accountability. Currently, the mayor, the City Council, and the police commission have the ability to provide oversight over the police department.
In addition, in 2017 the Legislature created the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board, which is responsible for reviewing criminal investigations of incidents of officer-involved deaths conducted by law enforcement agencies. The board evaluates the fairness of investigations and determines whether criminal prosecution or further investigation is warranted. As a council member, I would work with the appropriate stakeholders to identify areas of improvement or reform and what actions should be undertaken, including whether the role and authority of the police commission needs to be reevaluated.
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?
Fixed public transit, like rail, is not only about taking single occupancy vehicles off the road. It also plays a transformative role in reshaping how we design communities to maximize the use of space, protect green and open spaces, and reduce carbon emissions. Rail, if done right, can make a big difference especially if affordable housing and job creation occurs along its corridors to make it easier for people to use rail or to go to work nearby. Other solutions include staggered working hours and work weeks for both government and private sector workers and telecommuting. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that flexible working conditions significantly decreased traffic congestion. The challenge for us is how can we sustain it.
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?
Government should be transparent and accountable to its people. The action to suspend the open government laws shows how our government has not kept up with the technology upgrades and appropriate practices to digitize and make information publicly available.
The state’s IT systems should be upgraded with the latest technology available to ensure two-way communications between the government and public are achievable. Federal funding that has been provided to the county and state governments to help on the impacts of the pandemic should allow for this to happen. The order should be read strictly to only allow exceptions where the COVID-19 emergency makes strict compliance not possible so that the public can be provided with the information requested.
10. What more should Honolulu be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
Honolulu signing on to the Paris Climate Agreement and implementing policies to support net carbon neutrality and clean energy goals provide a solid foundation. I support the efforts undertaken by Honolulu’s Climate Change Commission and implemented by the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency. With its first-ever 2019 Annual Sustainability Report, the city is on the right track to planning for the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. What is needed is the willpower, funding, policies and infrastructure to meet the objectives.
Because climate change impacts everyone on this planet, I would ensure continued collaboration with the state, federal, regional and international governments to improve our capacity and effectively leverage our resources to address sea-level rise, coral reef protection and other important climate change-related issues.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The lack of affordable housing is the most pressing issue facing our district, both for our homeless population and for our working families.
I believe the City and County of Honolulu has a significant role to play in prioritizing affordable housing through zoning, streamlining planning and permitting policies and developing incentives to make housing more affordable for local residents.
As a council member, I would introduce policies that improve the use of city properties to add on affordable housing units if appropriate, work to develop a comprehensive program to improve our aging infrastructure (water, wastewater, municipal roads), and consider other incentives to increase affordable housing.
I am committed to working with state and federal officials to ensure that creative solutions are sought to increasing the number of affordable housing units, identifying suitable sites for such units, and ensuring that community consultation is incorporated at the outset of a project.