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 Jacob Aki, candidate for Honolulu City Council District 7, representing Kalihi, lwilei, Kalihi Kai, Mapunapuna, Salt Lake, Aliamanu, Hickam, Foster Village, Ford Island and Sand Island. The other candidate is Radiant Cordero.
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 COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt solidified the need and urgency to diversify our economy. While tourism will always remain as one of our state’s main economic pillars, I believe that we need to begin investing resources and efforts to expand other economic sectors such as agriculture, clean energy and film and television. These are industries that already exist and have the ability to garner revenue and employ local residents.
More importantly, this pandemic also offers us the opportunity to reimagine and redefine the way we do tourism here in our islands. First and foremost, before we open the economy for tourism, we need to prioritize the health and well-being of our workers in the industry by ensuring that proper safety measures are implemented before employees return to work.
Also, reports have shown that while the number of tourists traveling to Hawaii increased in recent years, the amount of money they are spending declined. To me, this is an indicator that we may need to rethink our marketing strategies.
Perhaps we should explore reinvesting some of those resources into local community organizations and initiatives and work with them to help provide a more authentic and sustainable experience for our visitors.
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?
While I believe that cutting city expenditures is necessary, I do not believe that it will be an effective long-term solution. Some budgetary items that I would consider cutting are things that the City Council already took action on in the most recent proposed budget: vacant positions, planned raises and other costs that can be covered by federal funds.
Moving forward, it will be important for the city to work with our congressional delegation to help leverage federal funds that may be able to supplement certain city expenses.
In regard to finding new revenue sources, counties have always had issues with this matter due to the constitutional mandate that reserves taxing power to the state, except for the taxation of real property.
The City and County of Honolulu should continue to explore the implementation of new fees (i.e. storm water utility fee), but working closely with the Legislature to find alternative revenue is the best course of action.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Oahu?
Both the state and city should have taken swifter actions in regard to the “stay at home order” and “mandatory quarantines.” During times of crisis, people look to government for counsel and guidance.
I applaud the response of Mayor Derek Kawakami and the County of Kauai for their efforts in quickly implementing the necessary safety/health protocols to combat the spread of coronavirus on the island.
There should have also been better coordinated communication between the state, counties and relevant health agencies in regard to the implementation of the various policies and “stay at home orders.”
For example, in early May, the governor ordered that certain businesses and retailers would be able to open May 7 as part of his seventh emergency supplementary proclamation. But the City and County of Honolulu and other counties had already set a later date for reopening. This mix-up left many businesses scrambling for confirmation on when they could actually reopen their doors.
Effective communication during times of crisis is critical and one that I believe should have been emphasized a bit more by our leaders during this pandemic.
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?
As we’ve seen with projects like the Kahuku Windmill or Sherwood Forest expansion in Waimanalo, the point of contention and controversy is often a matter of process.
Opponents of these projects argue that their voices and concerns have largely been ignored and proper community consultation did not occur.
Developers, they argue that it’s unfair to have their project halted when they’ve gone through the required “process” and permits to proceed have been issue.
Both sides have valid arguments and concern. But to ensure that important projects are successful while respecting community input and concerns, I believe government needs to reassess its processes and the role that it plays.
We need to do better in helping to facilitate these discussions and consultations with developers and the community. While it’s important to ensure that residents and other stakeholders are given ample time (and notice) to provide their input and concerns, we need to figure out a more effective way of getting the community to these meetings.
Change is inevitable, given the current situation at the Department of Planning and Permitting. Any substantive change to a project should require notification to the public to ensure accountability and transparency.
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?
While the recent agreement/amendment to Hitachi Rail International’s contact is a good step in the right direction, as it locks in the maximum amount the city will need to pay for operation and maintenance (O&M), there are still a number of costs which are outside of the contract that need to be figured out.
When the contract was signed in early 2020, city officials were confident that the $69 million being paid annually to Hitachi was something that was able to be covered in the budget for O&M expenses.
However, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Hawaii’s economy, HART is now looking at a $100 million slump in total revenue. In order to remedy these fiscal concerns, the city (primarily HART) needs to satisfy the concerns of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and secure the $750 million in federal funding that has not been received in recent years. These funds will help supplement lost revenue due to the pandemic.
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?
Hawaii is currently facing a homeless epidemic. Not only do we have one of the highest rates of homelessness per capita in the country, cost of living and lack of affordable housing make it difficult for many families to survive here in the islands.
If homelessness really is as a major priority for the city, it needs to be reflected in the city budget. For example, instead of investing $43.6 million for a partial redevelopment of the Blaisdell Center (as proposed in the mayor’s original budget), those monies should instead be used to help with the development of affordable housing or for the expansion of mobile hygiene centers, mental health treatment and addiction rehabilitation facilities.
A 2018 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that government cannot criminalize homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors until there is sufficient shelter. This makes enforcement of Honolulu’s sit-lie ban very difficult as one could argue that it violates the Constitution for the reasons laid out in the 2018 court case.
Nonetheless, while I can appreciate the rationale for the sit-lie ban, I do not believe it solves the issue. It’s just a temporary fix. We need to expand outreach services.
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’re fortunate that here in Hawaii, people of color make up a large portion of our state’s population. While we do not have a large number of cases relating to police brutality and violence as compared to other states, it should not erase the fact that we still have room for improvement.
Given the events that have unfolded across the country, I believe that the Honolulu Police Department is taking steps in the right direction by reviewing their force policy by suspending the use of vascular neck restraints, pending a review and recommendation by an internal committee.
I am also in support of exploring possible options of providing the commission with stronger oversight of the police department. Section 6-1606 of the Honolulu Charter outlines the powers, duties and function of the police commission. Therefore, if reform of the commission is something that is needed, the only way to do so would be through a vote of the people via a charter amendment.
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?
This COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the ability for a large number of Hawaii residents to work from home. With less people commuting to downtown Honolulu (and beyond), traffic continues to be unusually light as compared to pre-COVID-19 times.
The pandemic offers us the opportunity to reimagine and re-envision a better Hawaii moving forward. Thus, the city should continue evaluating and implementing a hybrid “work-from-home” culture for employees whose occupation is conducive and able to accommodate this type of work setting.
Understanding that this type of “work-from-home” system may not be for everybody; we shouldn’t waste this opportunity to invest and better utilize the technologies that we’ve become accustomed to using during the pandemic to stay productive.
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?
While I do disagree with the governor’s action of suspending open government laws during the pandemic, I can somewhat understand his reasoning for doing so. The main purpose for his decision was to ensure continuity of government operations during the pandemic.
However, I do believe that we could have continued government operations while following a majority of the open meeting laws and policies. Instead of suspending all of the laws completely, the governor could have left certain provisions, including notice requirements, ability to submit written testimony, etc.
While physical access to the meeting could have been prohibited due to emergency rules relating to public congregation, we could have better utilized existing technological capabilities to carry on necessary government operations (i.e. online submission of testimony, live streaming via Olelo or Facebook Live, etc.).
Moving forward, it will be important to invest in improving technology infrastructure at all levels of government. Along with amending rules, procedures and processes relating to the use of video conferencing technologies in government operations, we need to also ensure that we are working to provide internet connectivity to all people in communities across Hawaii. Lack of access to internet connectivity should not be an inhibitor for residents.
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 needs to continue to be a global leader in implementing sustainable actions that will help in combating climate change and sea level rise. The Ola Oahu Resilience Strategy, which is an initiative led by the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, needs to be the foundation on which the city bases its policy decisions from.
The strategy, which includes four pillars, 12 goals and 44 actions, provide us with a framework of what we need to do to combat the effects of climate change.
First, we need to invest in long-term solutions that will help increase self-sufficiency and sustainability, while also lessening our dependency on outside resources. We also need to invest resources into making our communities more resilient in the face of climate threats such as hurricanes, flooding and other extreme weather occurrences.
From a legislative standpoint, we also need to continue enacting sensible policies that aim to promote clean energy initiatives, access to clean ground transportation and planning for a climate resilient future.
Native Hawaiians were the best land managers who inherently understood the environment and the importance of sustainability. We need to bring indigenous knowledge to the forefront of our climate discussions here in Hawaii.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Access to affordable housing and quality of life continues to be the most pressing issues for residents in my community.
With rail and other proposed plans for transit-oriented development (TOD) being discussed for various areas in my district, I will fight to ensure that access to that is truly affordable for local families to remain at the forefront of these discussions.
Many residents are also concerned that these new developments will drive up the cost of living in the area and force them out of their communities. As a member of the City Council, I will not only fight to ensure that these projects do not alter the fabric of our district, but I will ensure that residents have a voice and say in what decisions are being made for our community.
As I keep saying, we have an opportunity to reimagine and re-envision a better Hawaii for our keiki. This includes changing the way we do business. By reforming the way government operates and building trust with the community, I believe that we can emerge stronger and more resilient.