In the race for Honolulu City Council District 3, seasoned government official Esther Kiaaina is facing off against Greg Thielen, a small business owner with an established family name.
The candidates are running for the nonpartisan seat once held by former Council Chair Ikaika Anderson, who recently resigned ahead of the end of his final term.
The seat is now being occupied by Alan Texeira, the third-place primary finisher who council members chose to serve the remainder of Anderson’s term.
The district includes Ahuimanu, Haiku, Maunawili, Kailua and Waimanalo.
The top candidate in the primary was Kiaaina with 10,398 votes to Thielen’s 9,048. Over 19,500 voters chose one of the other four candidates – Texeira, Kalani Kalima, Paul Mossman and Warland Kealoha – or left their ballot blank in the race.
Kiaaina, 57, said her decades of government and policy experience is what sets her apart from her opponent.
She currently serves as the executive director of the Pacific Basin Development Council, a nonprofit that promotes economic and social development in the Pacific Islands.
Previously, she served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of the Interior in the Obama administration. She was in charge of coordinating federal policy for Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
She has also worked as a first deputy in Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources; chief advocate at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs; a land asset manager at Kamehameha Schools; chief of staff for Congressmen Ed Case and Robert Underwood; a legislative assistant for U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka; and an intern for U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye. She also has a law degree from George Washington University.
Kiaaina, a Democrat, has made unsuccessful runs for the OHA Board of Trustees and the U.S. House.
In the council race, she is backed by prominent community members like U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi; advocacy organizations including the Sierra Club of Hawaii, Planned Parenthood, and the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association; and labor unions representing police officers, government employees, construction workers and others.
Greg Thielen’s resume looks very different. For nearly 20 years, Thielen, 52, has operated Complete Construction Services, a Kailua-based company that does both commercial and residential projects. If he wins, he will close his business to avoid conflicts of interest.
In 1996, he was appointed by Gov. Ben Cayetano to serve on the Small Business Regulatory Relief Board. Thielen said he has also advocated for housing and small business issues and has volunteered in his community, including coaching youth sports.
Thielen, who is not a member of a political party, said he provides an outside perspective.
“Do we need somebody with experience in government, or do we need somebody who has experience with government?” he said. “I believe the people with experience in government are the people who have given us the situation we have now.”
Notably, the person who recruited Kiaaina to run for the District 3 seat was Hawaii Sen. Laura Thielen – Greg Thielen’s sister. Laura Thielen publicly endorsed Kiaaina the week before her brother announced he would be running too. Contacted in August, the senator did not want to discuss it.
Greg Thielen said his sister had long urged Kiaaina to run in the district and felt “honor bound” to stand by her. His late entry into the race on Memorial Day didn’t change that.
It’s a “difficult predicament” that has caused some family strife, he said. Meanwhile, Greg’s mother, longtime Hawaii Republican Rep. Cynthia Thielen, is backing his campaign.
Thielen is also supported by several construction industry leaders including Pacific Architects President Dwight Mitsunaga, Hardware Hawaii executive David Lundquist, Graham Builders Vice President Evan Fujimoto and Brenton Liu, vice president of the remodeling company DTC Hawaii, campaign finance records show.
In addition, he received contributions from Matson, the Island Insurance political action committee, the Castle & Cooke Inc. Legislative Committee and a PAC associated with the Bank of Hawaii.
Kiaaina said she was recruited by Sen. Thielen and other Kailua community members in December 2019.
“There was great concern that while there were a lot of candidates, there were not enough candidates that had extensive government experience who would be able to go in from day one and be able to effectively fight,” Kiaaina said.
Her top three priorities are addressing the pandemic, the island’s economic recovery and housing and homelessness.
Government leaders need to make sure that everyone has enough personal protective equipment and that there is enough contact tracing and testing to keep the virus in check, she said.
“Where I believe I could be helpful is just holding accountable the manner of how the county is using federal CARES funding, not only with regard to addressing health issues, but, of course, relief measures for individuals and small businesses,” she said.
Even as a private citizen, Kiaaina says she was aggressive in demanding that the Department of Health track and release racial and ethnic information in its infections data. When DOH did disclose the information, it showed Pacific Islanders and members of the Filipino community were disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
As vice-chair for the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s board, Kiaaina said she has also been working behind the scenes to ensure CARES funding is directed to underserved communities.
Kiaaina said she is an advocate for affordable housing but opposed the recent controversial Kawainui proposal in Kailua. In testimony submitted to the City Council, she concurred with community members who expressed concerns about parking and traffic impacts.
Thielen did not submit council testimony on that issue, which Kiaaina said is something voters should consider.
“So transparency is: Let your voice be heard formally because that’s what we’re going to do when we’re council members,” she said. “You don’t sit on the sidelines and then respond to people when they say, ‘What is your position?’”
Thielen said he did address his stance against Kawainui during a Kokua Council forum, but said if he had been on council at that time he would “work to reconcile the two sides.”
“I was hoping Ikaika (Anderson) would have picked up that torch and I felt my opposition was counterproductive to that end,” he said. “That is why I did not engage in public opposition.”
In general, the city and state need to be more proactive about identifying government lands, and private areas too, for affordable housing development, Kiaaina said.
Officials should seek input from neighborhood boards, planners and other stakeholders to select those locations and push projects forward. It all needs to be part of a comprehensive strategy, she said.
“We cannot wait for the free market process to determine when affordable housing moves forward,” she said.
On homelessness, Kiaaina said she is already working on solutions – and sweeps and sit-lie bans are not among them. Those are “not effective remedies,” Kiaaina said, and she would vote against any sit-lie ban expansion.
Kiaaina is currently advocating for a group in Waimanalo that moved away from the beachfront to avoid a sweep in the beginning of the pandemic.
“Auntie Blanche” McMillan has worked to build a community for homeless people — called kauhale villages because they have shared facilities — but was later told by the state that the structures were not permitted, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
Kiaaina said she and others are working with DLNR, where she used to work, to address the problem.
“What it brought to my attention, again, is the failure of county and state housing people to take a snapshot of all that’s happening across Oahu and determine how to help,” she said. “So right now, we are left holding the bag on an exit strategy to move them temporarily to another site. But why should the onus be on us?”
Just like for affordable housing, the island’s leaders need to proactively identify parcels for the kauhale villages and support their development, according to Kiaaina. The sites need to offer wraparound services, she said, including job training.
She cited Puuhonua o Waianae, the homeless community that privately fundraised enough to plan a move to a new location mauka of its longtime spot at the Waianae boat harbor.
“I applaud them. But similar to what we’re facing in Waimanalo, the onus should not be on the community,” she said. “Where are our leaders?”
Kiaaina said better coordination between county, state and federal officials is needed, both on homelessness and affordable housing. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands should also play a significant role, she said.
Overall, Kiaaina says her hands-on experience working on these issues means she has the expertise to get things done, either administratively or with legislation.
“I have a reputation as being a facilitator and bringing parties together,” she said.
Regarding the rail project, Kiaaina said she is a “rail supporter” but is concerned that Mayor Kirk Caldwell doesn’t seem to have the power to make decisions.
“What’s going on is a fiasco with regard to the city pulling out and then the HART board seemingly still having the authority to move forward with a semblance of a P3 contract,” she said. “How can that happen?”
If the mayor does not have enough authority, she said “we need to reevaluate that.”
“This standoff between the mayor and the HART board cannot continue,” she said. “Failure to have a unified strategy among the mayor, the HART board and the City Council does not bode well with regard to long term public trust or confidence in the rail system.”
When it comes to the Honolulu Police Department, Kiaaina said she is not well-versed in police reform issues. However, the candidate, who was endorsed by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, said the department does need to work to increase its clearance rates, which reflect cases solved as a percentage of crimes reported.
Regarding HPD’s record-breaking pandemic ticketing spree, Kiaaina said “there has to be a better way.” She is also concerned about the amount of CARES money HPD received. The department got over $30 million, including for overtime and ATVs, while funding delivered to struggling households lagged.
She would like to explore the possibility of other county employees doing pandemic-related enforcement so police can focus on their normal jobs.
Overall, Kiaaina said she is the best prepared candidate for the job of council member.
“With 30 years of experience, you learn the tricks of the trade of how to fight within governmental systems,” she said. “And I bring that to the table. But I don’t just bring the fighting spirit. I bring a record of achievement, of actually achieving objectives. And that’s a big difference.”
Despite his family pedigree, Thielen said he had never considered running for office. But watching the pandemic unfold in Spring 2020, he said he felt the need to help.
“I believe that my skill set, the skill set of a small business owner – the hard work, the determination, the grit, the ability to do more with less, the knowledge of what it takes to create jobs and train people to sell them – is a skill set that’s really needed, especially at the city level of government,” he said.
Earlier this year, Oahu was shut down for longer than was necessary, Thielen said. And the ever-changing rules meant that families could go to Costco together, but not the beach. A small business had to be closed while Home Depot could be open.
Thielen considered the rules a broad overreach that caused “economic calamity.”
“When we were given a stay at home order back in March, it was with the understanding that we were staying at home to flatten the curve, to give government time, to prepare and be ready with the steps that were needed for us to get back to work,” he said.
“It did seem to change between March and May, where instead of staying home to flatten the curve, we were being told to stay home even though the curve was flat.”
If elected, Thielen said his biggest priority will be getting people back to work through job creation and training for workers who are changing careers.
“Tourism is not coming back to pre-COVID levels anytime soon,” he said.
As a council member, Thielen said he would leverage the power of the capital improvements budget to “put that money to work, and put people to work.” That could include construction, tree planting, park and trail maintenance and improvement and investments in housing infrastructure.
To help diversify the economy, Thielen would also like the city to invest in entrepreneurial ventures in areas like agriculture, technology and home-based consulting businesses.
“I believe we can empower people to create a diversification wave,” he said. “But we’ve got to look from the ground up because the mistake that we’ve made in the past is the government tries to pick a winner.”
If elected, Thielen said his main focus would be interacting with the city administration on behalf of the constituents in District 3. Voters are concerned about “very localized” quality of life issues including traffic, drainage culverts and dilapidated recreation centers and parks.
“These aren’t, you know, big, sexy, high level issues like the rail,” he said. “But I think that’s the most important thing that I want to do.”
Thielen said he would also prioritize reforms at the Department of Planning and Permitting, which has a “terrible track record” of addressing illegal short-term vacation rentals. He would also like to expand last year’s legislative crackdown on STRs. Instead of restricting rentals to a minimum of 30 days, he says 90 days is more appropriate.
DPP’s failure to enforce the law against monster homes and its glacial pace of approving building permits also needs to be addressed, according to Thielen. The department currently demands “perfect” building plans and then outsources inspections to third parties, Thielen said. He believes that should be reversed.
“If we continue to allow projects to sit on the shelf at DPP for six months, 12 months, 18 months, then that’s work that’s not happening. That’s jobs that are not happening,” said Thielen, who has encountered those kinds of delays as a builder himself.
“As people build, it increases the value of their property and it increases tax revenue for the city.”
Oahu should consider establishing an Office of Emergency Permitting, as Kauai did in the aftermath of Hurricane Iniki, Thielen said.
“You could literally walk in and walk out with a building permit the same day,” he said.
Regarding affordable housing, Thielen believes the government should use city property and resources to build units for people in the lowest-income brackets.
“Those projects can’t be built without the help of government,” he said.
The government should build infrastructure to cater to development on government land, not private land as was the case in Kakaako, he said. The city can also repurpose buildings, like office buildings that are now vacant because of COVID-19, for housing, Thielen said.
Thielen opposed the ill-fated Kawainui affordable housing development, “with a heavy heart,” because he felt there was a lack of community input in the waiving of zoning and parking rules that the developer wanted.
“I also think it’s unfair for people to buy homes in a residential community to be told that someone is going to build a four story, 73-unit apartment building across the street from you on that block that is zoned residential,” he said.
On homelessness, Thielen said Honolulu has done a good job setting up an isolation center for homeless people during the pandemic and the police department’s temporary tent city, the POST program.
However, Honolulu should offer more Housing First and Rapid Rehousing vouchers, which aim to house homeless people, and expand the city’s Landlord Engagement Program, which works to address landlord concerns about renting to formerly homeless people.
Thielen’s wife, Laura Thielen, is the director of Partners In Care, a nonprofit homeless services coordinator that holds the Landlord Engagement Program contract.
One problem with homeless services is that nonprofit providers experience a lot of turnover because of low pay, Thielen said. He wonders if that sector should have a prevailing wage law, like in construction, so that homeless outreach workers can stay in their jobs and be more effective.
When it comes to homeless sweeps and sit-lie ban enforcement, Thielen said they don’t do anything to solve the problem of homelessness and he wouldn’t vote to expand sit-lie bans.
“That being said, and this is an area where my wife and I have a number of arguments on, public property belongs to the public,” he said. “And I don’t believe that a set group of people have the right to occupy it.”
Therefore, he said he supports the continued use of sweeps as a tool for public health and safety.
On rail, Thielen said he is not someone who wants rail at any cost. He wants the bidding process to be made public prior to an award and would support a forensic audit that was previously supported by the City Council but then shot down.
“I say this as someone who has built many things over the years. I have never seen a project built where you work the budget to the project,” he said. “You work the project to the budget.”
At the Honolulu Police Department, Thielen said Chief Susan Ballard is doing a good job, but there is clearly room for improvement. The department’s low crime-solving rate combined with its aggressive ticketing this year is an example of “misguided priorities,” he said. He believes the Police Commission should have more oversight power of the department.
Thielen said HPD should have the resources it needs to do its job. However, if its social services-focused projects, like the POST program, were moved to another department, the funding for that program should be shifted as well.
For Thielen, his community ties are what makes him the better candidate for District 3 than Kiaaina.
“I know these problems we’re experiencing on a much more personal level,” he said. “That long term residency and connection to the community and knowledge of the community is something that’s an important asset that I bring that she does not have.”
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