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 Keith Amemiya, candidate for Honolulu mayor. The other candidate is Rick Blangiardi.
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?
We’ve been over-reliant on tourism for far too long and COVID-19 has shown us the fragility of our economy with one dominant industry. We have been saying for years that we need to diversify our economy and have more sustainable tourism, but past political leaders haven’t been able to change the status quo. We need to actually get things done.
This includes implementing ideas like green visitor fees that will preserve our natural resources and community-based tourism management plans like in Haena and Hanauma Bay. Our hospitality workers want to give guests a higher quality experience; they need the support to be able to do that. To open up tourism, we need to ensure the safety of workers first by having adequate testing, contact tracing and increasing safety measures. This task requires everyone involved in the hospitality industry — from our workers to employers and airlines — to work together to bring back our tourism in a healthy, sustainable way.
We need to diversify our economy by acting on the industries we’ve talked about for years, including renewable energy and local agriculture.
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?
During times of crisis, government needs to step up and respond with a spirit of hope and opportunity, not fear and scarcity. City services are vital to the health of our people, our economy and our environment.
The city can help stimulate the economy by building affordable housing, building infrastructure such as sewers and water lines to encourage private development, and digitizing city services across all departments. The city needs to take action on the many good ideas and plans for renewable energy to help drive economic growth.
My plan is to decrease bureaucracy and improve city processes so that city services and programs get to the people and neighborhoods that need them. We also need strict oversight and transparency of key city operating expenditures like rail. I plan to conduct an energy audit on all city facilities and implement clean energy solutions to reduce costs. I also support a vacancy tax on property that is not occupied or on the market. This would both increase revenue and encourage property owners to list, either for rent or sale, and in turn increase supply while bringing down housing costs.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Oahu?
The mayor and governor made the right call in shutting down our economy and tourism in order to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Government was not ready for the fallout from an economic shutdown, such as access to food, housing costs, small business needs, unemployment benefits and clear communication to the public. We were in unprecedented times and I know that everyone in leadership positions was trying their best. It is always easy to look at things in hindsight, but from this ongoing crisis, I believe we need to learn and act differently on three key lessons:
• Clearer, more consistent communication to the public, with coordination from all levels of government and business and community leaders. Many residents and business owners often and rightfully felt confused, fearful, and uncertain with restrictions and recovery plans.
• Coordination of evidence-based and research-driven practices for community-wide screening and testing.
• Access and information to ensure that people’s basic needs are met, such as food and housing.
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 community has been divided in the past for many reasons: distrust in government, lack of meaningful engagement, lack of good information and more. I’ve had to work across divided lines in the past, and I found that people from different sides can come together if there is genuine relationship building, listening, shared values and bridge building to understand one another. This is the approach I’ve taken during my time as a nonprofit leader and as a business executive. I have found that when we take the time to truly listen, to truly care, and to come to shared solutions together, there is more that brings us together than divides us.
As mayor, I will bring this kind of collaboration to the city by creating the Office of Community Engagement. This new office will seek out community input and concerns and involve people in decision making, particularly those who are impacted most. The office will work directly with community leaders to connect communities with city departments and leaders in the planning, communication and implementation of projects.
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?
Financing of operations and maintenance of rail, TheBus, TheHandiVan and all Honolulu transit comes from three primary sources: fares that riders pay, property taxes and federal funds.
The city must pursue all potential future federal funding from stimulus plans, like the CARES Act, HEROES Act and other competitive grants such as the LoNo grant. The city recently received one of the largest LoNo grants in the U.S. to advance our electric bus programs. Many jurisdictions partially fund public transit with a general excise tax or other program revenues for operations. Once rail construction is finished, the city will examine if it makes sense to fund our major transit operations through the same general excise tax that currently is limited to rail construction only.
People in Honolulu use public transit more during times of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic will be no different. Oahu’s recovering economy needs a modern, dependable public transit system that gets people to and from work, to school, and to shopping destinations.
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?
I will continue funding for Housing First and take the lessons learned in developing housing specifically for houseless persons to truly build at a much larger and much needed scale.
My experience with Kahauiki Village, a public-private partnership with the city to create housing for over 600 people who were previously houseless including over 300 children, has made it clear to me that city leaders can and must do more for our families.
While I support the sidewalk nuisance and stored property ordinances, I believe that people who are homeless must have a reasonable option for shelter when these laws are enforced in an area. People can decline the option, but it must be available.
The larger issue is: How do we address the needs of people who feel that the sidewalk is their only option?
As mayor, I will partner with the state to tackle mental health and substance abuse. While the state has primary responsibility in these areas, I will address this longstanding issue in our community immediately with partners and stakeholders ready to work on solutions.
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?
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Their senseless deaths and the deaths of people of color across the nation have left me horrified, angry and devastated. This is the result of centuries of inequality, injustice and discrimination.
If we’re being honest, these social problems exist in our islands as well. And too often, they are unaddressed because they are uncomfortable, complicated, and politically inconvenient.
In light of the concerns raised by Justice Steven Levinson and Loretta Sheehan about the Police Commission, I am open to discussing ways that the City Charter can be amended to allow the Police Commission greater oversight over the department. Such an amendment would need to go through the City Council or a Charter Commission and be approved by the public. As mayor, I will ensure that people appointed to the police and ethics commissions are willing to publicly voice concerns and offer true oversight.
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 future of Oahu requires a public transportation network for our island that includes rail, buses, bike lanes and walkways. These modes must be affordable and easy for people to access. Healthy economies have strong public transit systems that connect people to affordable housing, retail hubs, and their jobs.
Choice is one of the keys to a strong transit system, such as the ability to drive when necessary, taking public transportation, or biking and walking. We need to evaluate all new technologies and embrace the ones that work for Oahu.
I support the completion of rail to Ala Moana and am open to considering where else it needs to go, whether that be downtown Kapolei, Central Oahu, UH Manoa, or Waikiki. I will continue to listen to our residents on the future of rail.
Our perception of traffic will change in the post-COVID world. Businesses and government employers have embraced teleworking and I support the retention of strong telecommuting for City employees to enhance workers’ new expectations on work-life balance.
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?
First, any need for the suspension of open government laws highlights the long-discussed need for policies and procedures that allow remote, virtual testimony. The transition at the City Council, where testimony can now be received in virtual form, reveals that making government more accessible and transparent is often just a matter of willpower and willingness.
Given the actual lack of capacity at the time, I did support part of the governor’s action. Public hearings allowed boards to conduct business while providing the public a viable avenue to participate remotely while accommodating safe distancing.
Without the governor’s action, major organizations like the University of Hawaii Board of Regents (where I previously served as the executive administrator and secretary to the board) could not have met or acted upon urgent business for months. If UH is to help in our recovery, delays are not an option.
Nonetheless, I support continued interactive conference technology engagement as described in state law to allow for greater participation. I will work to form partnerships in cross-governmental legislation to find common ground in balancing accessibility, accountability and achievability.
10. What more should Honolulu be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
COVID-19 is the crisis of today, but climate change is the crisis of our lifetime. I am committed to enacting into ordinance the city’s first ever comprehensive Climate Action Plan, developed by the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency in partnership with our community.
The Climate Action Plan will be a critical step in protecting from sea level rise and the many devastating effects of a quickly warming planet. Managed adaptation and retreat will be a major part of the action plan, including evaluating building code and setback lines. In places like Waikiki, electrical generators and elevator equipment are in basements prone to flooding from sea level rise. This creates a safety hazard for the many kupuna and households with disabilities that reside in multi-story buildings.
We must reevaluate coastal zones and establish setbacks based on science and available data. When events do occur, we need to look at ways to relocate rather than rebuilding in place. I also support the city’s lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry. Taxpayers should not be left to pay for the impacts of climate change when fossil fuel companies misconstrued the science and data showing the longterm negative impacts of the products they sell.
11. What other issue would you like to discuss here?
Since I started my mayoral campaign 10 months ago, I’ve talked with thousands of residents and they’re worried about their quality of life and the future of our islands. They shared with me stories about the impossible choices they have to make: spending time with their family or working multiple jobs, taking care of their health or working to get health-care benefits, and paying for housing or paying for good food.
The past generations of political leaders have failed our people. COVID made it all the more clear that the leadership of the past did not work then and certainly won’t work in today’s world. We need more than just talk and legislation. We need action. Honolulu needs leadership that will bring people together to finally get things done for our community, especially during this time of crisis.