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 Greg Thielen, candidate for Honolulu City Council District 3 representing Ahuimanu, Heeia, Haiku, Kaneohe, Maunawili, Kailua, Olomana, Enchanted Lake and Waimanalo. The other candidate is Esther Kia’āina.
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?
This is not an “either or” question; we must do both. We cannot simply replace tourism. We need to bring it back. We should also try to diversify our economy, but the idea that this will make up the loss of tourism is simply not realistic. We also need to realize that even if we drop any impediment to tourists traveling here, they still won’t be coming back in the numbers we had before.
The short-term focus has to be on creating opportunities and supporting retraining of employees for other fields. Construction should be an area that supports good job growth. We need to take this time to invest in critical infrastructure that will allow for the construction of affordable housing. We should also support business incubators that create new small business opportunities. Finally, we need to change the way government operates so it isn’t an impediment to rebuilding the economy.
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?
The city will have to cut expenses, there is no maybe involved. My experience both as a small business owner and a homebuilder have me well prepared for the test. In construction we have a process called value engineering. This is where we try to reduce cost with the least impact to original design intent. This is what needs to be done at the city. We need to trim with a scalpel as opposed to a hatchet.
One area I would like to move on quickly is converting the Department of Planning and Permitting to a self-funded operation in the same way the Department of Commerce & Consumer Affairs is at the state; fee levels would still be set by the council. This would provide a financial incentive to DPP to streamline and move permits out more quickly and reduce some of the burden on the budget. I would also like to see what opportunities exist in terms of federal programs to assist with infrastructure investment.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Oahu?
When the stay at home order was issued in March it was done with a specific goal. We were all to stay at home to flatten the curve. This was never about eradicating COVID-19 or preventing anyone from getting it ever. The goal was to allow hospitals time to prepare for a large influx of cases and Government to prepare for appropriate testing and contact tracing.
We as citizens did our part, but the government hasn’t done theirs. To compound matters the reopening process has gone far too slowly in light of our case count in Hawaii. There were silly things where additional restrictions were being added while cases were dwindling to a near statistical zero. There was poor coordination between the city and state in issuing orders. Finally, there’s been poor communication on a path forward.
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 reputation is at an all-time low. Between corruption convictions of the Kealohas, the high level staff on paid leave while under federal investigation, the federal subpoena of rail documents and the never-ending string of cost overruns and delays on rail, the city has no credibility. So when the city tries to be the impartial arbiter between developers of renewable energy facilities or affordable housing it is viewed as crooked and incompetent.
Job one is restoring the public faith in the credibility of their elected officials. We need to be transparent in our dealings, we need to weigh all input and we need to vote our conscience on each issue or project that comes before us. We need to have the hard conversations and all of us, not just those elected, need to look out for all the people of Oahu.
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?
There is no rewind button on rail. There is, however, a pause button. The proposals for the final phase of construction are due in July. Because of the accountability problems and the lack of transparency to date this decision needs to be left to the review of a new administration and council.
The council’s decision to cancel the forensic audit is inexcusable and needs to be rescinded. We also need to allow time for the federal investigation to come to fruition. Ultimately we do need to complete this project. It just needs to be done by fresh eyes and ears instead of those that got us where we are today.
How the pandemic affects finances and operations remains to be seen. What we know with certainty is the rail will operate at a loss and this will have to be made up somewhere and somehow.
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?
Homelessness is a single category, but within that community there is a wide range of problems causing homelessness and a wide range of solutions to the problems. The one thing all of them have in common is a lack of access to affordable housing. The only solution to that problem is building more housing.
As an advocate for housing for the last decade I have lobbied every level of government on this issue. I understand where the impediments are and what we need to do to remove them. We also need to expand on what is working such as the rapid re-housing voucher program and HPD’s POST. Utilizing sweeps or sit-lie bans is really only a measure of last resort when homeless reach a tipping point of abusing public space. They do nothing to solve the root problem though; they just clean up some of the noticeable symptoms.
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?
I vividly remember the day the four police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King. I remember the anger I felt after trusting the system would deal with them appropriately and it failed us all. At the time I felt grateful that this moment would be an awakening. That America would have the hard conversation about race and emerge the better for it.
I sit here 28 years later wondering to myself, what happened? How can we still be in this place? I am shocked and saddened and want to make a difference. Clearly a logical place to start is offering vacancies on the police commission to people of color and people that are involved in the current protests. They need a seat at the table.
Furthermore, the police commission should have an actual say in reviewing and disciplining officers. Leaving all of that authority in the hands of the chief is a mistake. We also need to remember that the vast majority of police officers are serving the public well. We need to be better about weeding out the bad apples, but let’s not taint all officers with the actions of a few.
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?
One of the things we have all realized during the stay at home order is we don’t all need to be driving everywhere all the time. I will support measures to see that the city embraces remote work where feasible on a regular and ongoing basis. I will also support moving more interaction with city government to an online platform.
While both of these measures need to be done for the sake of doing them, they will also ease traffic congestion. We also need to explore ways to incentivize private business to do the same. We also need to do more to encourage visitors to use public transportation or private group transportation, as opposed to rental cars.
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 will say first and foremost that I support open government and the Sunshine Law. That being said, emergencies require us to change or suspend those things that we are accustomed to.
I understand a short-term suspension at the time of the first emergency proclamation. This should not be used as an “excuse” or “cover” for dodging the responsibility government has to the people for providing access to meetings and public records. Instead it should be used as a measure of last resort when it is needed for public health and safety. I do think going forward we need to make better use of online platforms for meetings and hearings to avoid this type of disruption from reoccurring.
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 is a real and serious threat to our entire planet. Each level of government has a different level of responsibility to address this. To me, the city’s responsibility in this struggle is resiliency and mitigation.
In terms of resiliency we need to invest in improvement to our city-owned property to make it hardened against the eventual hurricane we will experience. Our current shelter situation is dismal. We also need to look at zoning and infrastructure investment to ensure future projects are located above inundation zones.
In terms of mitigation we need to invest in green buildings and transportation solutions. As one of the first custom homebuilders to build a LEED home on Oahu, I understand what this means.
Another important mitigation point is tree planting. Rather than a lip service initiative we need to dedicate a set-aside within our capital improvement budget to support this.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most serious issues facing District 3 are diverse, but with a single unifying thread. I would say the issues are:
• The ability for residents and their children to continue to afford to call Windward Oahu home.
• Vacation rentals.
The thread that binds these issues together is housing. We desperately need more housing islandwide. While the main growth should occur along the rail line, we also need to do a better job of supporting expansion of housing opportunities in all of our communities.
In District 3, the best opportunity for this growth is in the construction of accessory dwelling units. The city should follow the advice of the Real Property Tax Advisory Commission and offer a tax exemption on the added value of the ADU project.
Having private landowners construct rental housing units is far more cost effective than having the city do it. In 2018 I successfully advocated for waiving sewer connection fees and other costs imposed by the city on ADUs, and I would like to continue that effort.