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 Rick Blangiardi, candidate for Honolulu mayor. The other candidate is Keith Amemiya.
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?
I believe that tourism will always be a vital part of our economy. With that said, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recalibrate the tourism industry to a more palatable and sustainable level. Over the years, in many ways we have been wholesaling our home to masses of visitors. While this has brought in good money to our island, it has also proven to create an economic base too dependent on tourism. Hawaii’s global brand is uniquely competitive, and we need to better capitalize on that inherent strength. We should aggressively look to price ourselves toward a better clientele that provides for a better experience for visitors and our residents.
Bringing tourism back will require a comprehensive effort of collaboration with unions, hotels, the state, airlines and community stakeholders to begin a safe and phased approach to reintroducing tourism. These efforts must include concrete steps to incorporate comprehensive testing, tracking and hopefully in the future, vaccine deployment.
Diversifying our economy has been talked about for decades, but in reality, to little or no avail. A key opportunity as we begin the third decade of the 21st century is to be first and foremost supportive of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial ideas, while recognizing our island’s natural strengths. We must develop jobs in construction, agriculture, and energy; three industries that will immeasurably help Oahu sustain itself. We have the potential to become world leaders in innovation in a number of sectors.
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?
In my experience the best way to balance the budget and instill fiscal responsibility for our city is through common sense decision making and building a management team that embraces accountability. Effective and responsible managerial practices like zero-based budgeting while asking the simple question, “Why?” for each and every dollar the city spends, is fundamental to controlling the city’s budget responsibly.
Systematically reviewing how our city spends its money will also allow us to ensure that the programs and services people need most in a post COVID-19 world are prioritized. The reprioritization of city funds is not optional, especially as the city’s finances look to be severely damaged by the economic fallout from COVID-19.
In terms of increasing revenue, one way would be to consider the option of taxing vacant homes. This will not only provide a financial stimulus for us, but will quite possibly help increase the inventory of available houses for local residents. This practice has succeeded on Vancouver Island and is also being explored in other major cities.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Oahu?
I would have better coordinated the communication, and collaboration, between the city and state. During a crisis, our leaders need to work together to be out in front of the public with clear, concise and easy to understand information. Clear communication instills confidence in our government, and confidence in ourselves in moving forward during difficult times.
Given my long career with television news, I know first-hand the absolute importance and need to provide lifesaving, trustworthy information that is accurate and at the fingertips of our population as quickly as possible. Disseminating clear and easy to understand information during a crisis can save lives. It is that important!
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 best solution in attempting to build consensus lies in transparency and open communication. Projects like the Sherwood Forest development seem too often imposed on the local residents of a community, despite lacking a majority rule. This is not to be confused with the right of the people to assemble in protest of a grievance, but more to the core of what is best and most desired by the residents. Consequently, in this case I have come out in support of protecting Sherwood Forest.
Government leadership is obligated to understand the concerns of its community members, and can no longer leave our community members feeling powerless and ignored. It is incumbent on our elected leaders to communicate their intentions with the public especially when a project is truly important and essential to the fabric of the community.
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?
It is my understanding that the operation and maintenance of rail going forward is tied to the future public-private partnership (P3), which is expected and needed to help complete rail. We do not know what has been negotiated, and we do not know for certain the actual numbers associated with the operation and maintenance of the rail project. It is critical we receive this pending information in order to accurately and responsibly plan how we will pay for the rail.
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 believe that “compassionate disruption” has run its course, and does not work. This approach simply moves our homeless around our various communities, and does not address the underlying issues of drug abuse and mental illness that affect a very high percentage of our homeless population. I am of the belief it will take a combination of having resources like treatment facilities available, and tough love in taking people off the streets who cannot take care of themselves if we seriously intend to deal with the systemic issues plaguing our homeless population.
I want to be clear — it is not a crime to be poor, and we cannot criminalize poverty. However, enforceable sit-lie bans are a catalyst to get people into proper facilities for proper treatment of their needs. This is especially critically important for those unable to care for themselves. That being said, sit-lie bans are ineffective if we do not develop and fund the people and proper resources necessary to solve some of the very real issues affecting our homeless.
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 am against all forms of discrimination for all people. I am a strong supporter of ongoing training of our police to ensure that problems like implicit bias are addressed in every level, and to every individual on our police force.
Chief Susan Ballard has brought a new dimension of leadership to our police department in Honolulu. I support and applaud her efforts to increase accountability, and transparency within the policy department as we move forward.
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?
We must continue to encourage people to take alternative modes of transportation, but we also need to realistically address the root cause of our traffic problem, which is the flow of too many automobiles on our roads. We cannot wait for the rail to solve our traffic problems, there are steps we can take immediately.
Our traffic situation is a fixable problem, and it starts with management committed to fixing the problem. We must revitalize our approach to traffic management for the 21st century by maximizing our investment in the newly opened Joint Traffic Management Center. We need to improve and implement efficient technology, such as synchronized traffic lights, to allow us to better manage the cars on our roads.
We have also discovered during this pandemic that staggered work hours and working remotely has had an enormous impact on traffic. Perhaps we can learn from this experience moving forward. Traffic management needs to be a priority to help improve the quality of life for our local residents.
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?
A fundamental tenet of my administration will be to establish trust with the public. To build trust, the public needs transparency, and accessibility from our city and state government. I understand Gov. Ige’s decision to suspend the open government laws given the very real danger of COVID-19. However, our nation’s lack of preparation for an event of this magnitude, has showcased our need to have the technological resources, and responsible health guidelines in place in order to ensure the public can have open access to meetings and public records in a safe and responsible way.
Adapting operational practices by embracing new alternative communication technology, and social distancing measures, represents a clear, commonsense alternative to help ensure the public has continued open access to our government.
10. What more should Honolulu be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
As a member of the Oahu Resilience Strategy Committee, I helped outline 44 concrete actions the city can take to help make Oahu a more resilient place. Many of these actions focused on addressing the real threat climate change poses to our islands and to our future.
The city must address the inevitability of sea level rise by overhauling and modernizing its permitting and land use development rules along our shorelines to protect our beaches and infrastructure. We must also continue our efforts, more than ever before, in attacking the increasing dangers of climate change by transitioning to clean forms of energy. These efforts are just a start, but they can address both sea level rise, and devastating impact to our reefs.
11. What other issue would you like to discuss here?
The prevailing circumstances impacting Honolulu’s economy as a result of COVID-19 mandate the need for our elected officials to provide exceptional leadership at every level on a going forward basis, and this is especially true for the next mayor of the City and County of Honolulu.
We need bold, decisive and pragmatic leadership that will earn the trust of the public each and every day. Unquestionably, the road ahead will require us to make many tough decisions. However, as the situations present themselves, my team and I will get things done, and always prioritize our actions for the greater good of our community.