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As Honolulu grapples with a health and economic crisis and federal aid dollars expire, a new mayor and City Council will endeavor to lead the island’s recovery.
Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi and five new council members will be sworn in on Jan. 2. The addition of three women to the nine-member council means the Honolulu City Council will be majority female.
With CARES Act money running out at the end of December and no additional federal aid in sight, Blangiardi won’t enjoy the kind of unilateral spending decisions Mayor Kirk Caldwell has made this year with the emergency funds.
Blangiardi will have to work with the new City Council. As of now, members are still sorting out their hierarchy, but members new and old are preaching a message of collaboration.
“I would hope that in concert with all my colleagues we would secure a majority and veer away from factionalism,” said Esther Kiaaina, who was just elected to represent Kaneohe, Kailua and Waimanalo.
“The people of Honolulu can ill afford to have a factionalized City Council or an obstructionist City Council with an incoming administration and all the difficult issues we’re going to be dealing with.”
Those issues include navigating the public health crisis, advancing the island’s economic recovery, making the Department of Planning and Permitting more efficient, untangling the complexities of housing and homelessness, and dealing with the increasingly troubled rail project, Kiaaina said.
“Given all that we’re going through, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a united council that held the administration accountable but worked collaboratively with them?” Kiaaina said. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
It’s still unclear though who will be the new City Council chair, a powerful position that includes leading council meetings and making committee assignments. Council Chair Ann Kobayashi’s term is expiring.
In interviews with Civil Beat, current and future members were circumspect about who is in the running to replace her.
However, Councilman-elect Calvin Say said that North Shore Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi and Councilman Tommy Waters, whose district spans Waikiki to Hawaii Kai, are both interested in the top job. Neither Tsuneyoshi nor Waters returned messages seeking comment.
Councilwoman-elect Andria Tupola said various people are interested in being chair and that members are still in discussions. However, she said she’s not in favor of a chair who is already a sitting council member.
“The way we step forward as a council will set the tempo and the direction for our terms,” said Tupola, a former Republican state representative. “We need to do things differently. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’re only going to get what you’ve always gotten.”
Blangiardi will need a stable of at least five council members to advance his agenda, said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center.
“Without that, I don’t know how much he’ll be able to get done,” he said.
Although the seats are nonpartisan, some members are likely to be more business-oriented, politically centrist and more supportive of Blangiardi’s goals, according to Moore.
Moore expects it would include Tsuneyoshi and Tupola, Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, and entertainer Augie Tulba, who beat longtime liberal lawmaker Will Espero in his first-ever run for office.
Tupola supported Blangiardi’s campaign. She said the mayor-elect is different from Caldwell “in every possible way,” which she sees as positive.
“I hope that Rick succeeds, and I’m going to count on him to help me succeed so we can get stuff done for my district,” she said. “I’m excited to work with him.”
Tsuneyoshi has been one of the current council’s more outspoken members. She has criticized what she sees as a lack of help for small businesses during the pandemic. She also exhibited a willingness to make waves this year when she filed ethics complaints against former Council Chair Ikaika Anderson for taking a union job and proposing his staff member take his seat.
Tsuneyoshi endorsed Tulba in his council race, and he said he would be loyal to her if she seeks the chair position.
“I am on Team Heidi,” Tulba said. “That’s how it works in politics. You support who is supporting you.”
Tulba added though that members are just getting to know each other and he doesn’t think the council will break into factions.
“I honestly believe in all my heart that we want to work with the new mayor because we’ve had so much division the last few years,” he said.
Fukunaga staffer Kimberly Ribellia did not respond to messages seeking comment from the councilwoman.
Kiaaina, a former Obama administration official; sitting Councilmen Waters and Brandon Elefante; and Radiant Cordero – who was just elected to replace her boss, Budget Chair Joey Manahan – will likely fall in the more liberal or progressive camp, according to Moore.
Waters, Elefante and Manahan all endorsed Blangiardi’s opponent, Democrat Keith Amemiya, in the general election.
Say told Civil Beat he would back Waters for the chairmanship. If Say, Elefante, Cordero and Kiaaina all team up with Waters, they would have a majority bloc of five people. But it’s too soon to say if that will happen.
Elefante declined to comment for this story. Cordero and Kiaaina didn’t say who they would support for the chair.
Tupola said she believes Say, Waters and Elefante are sticking together, but “three is not enough.” Cordero and Kiaaina haven’t made commitments yet, Tupola said, and she believes they’re open-minded.
Ultimately, Tupola said she hopes the council will unite unanimously around a single chair.
“If we don’t need to make factions, let’s not make factions,” she said. “Let’s be a council that is able to determine a path forward together.”
Say, too, said he is not interested in division.
“We’re all in the same canoe,” he said.
Council members will be working with Blangiardi’s incoming managing director, Mike Formby, who has government experience at the city, state and federal levels.
All the sitting and incoming council members who spoke to Civil Beat were complimentary of Formby, citing his strong communication skills.
“We know he is someone who has been collaborative no matter where he’s been,” Cordero said.
An attorney, Formby has previously worked as an acting state transportation director, Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s city transportation director, a chief of staff to former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, an interim director at the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and a HART board member.
He was even an interim councilman for about two months in 2019.
“You’re getting someone who has a tremendous amount of government experience at the federal and city level and expertise in one of the most thorny policy challenges which is rail,” Moore said. “I’m not terribly surprised by this choice, and it seems like a really strong choice and provides a lot of what Blangiardi needs, which is insider knowledge.”
Blangiardi was not available for an interview for this article, according to his campaign press secretary Jennifer Armstrong.
Cordero said she is “less invested” in the fight for the chair position or even to which committees she’ll be assigned. She said she just wants to do the work she was elected to do, including ensuring the city budget protects needed services.
“I would be very wary of any furloughs or any position cuts that aren’t absolutely essential,” she said.
Also, Cordero, who calls herself a “community connector,” wants to make the city more accessible to average citizens and people with challenges like deafness. That means making it easier to submit testimony and find meeting agendas, she said.
“We are your Honolulu City Council so we need to bring the council to our communities,” she said.
Kiaaina said she looks forward to holding the mayor and the board of the rail accountable.
In particular, Kiaaina wants to ensure that the people Blangiardi appoints to key roles, such as directors in DPP and the Department of Community Services, are “credible candidates.” She said she’s not afraid to push back if she feels someone is a bad fit.
Say said he is eager to attend budget presentations so he can get a sense of the city’s financial standing and revenue. He also wants to look at capital improvement projects that are shovel ready and enhance salaries for first responders so that Honolulu is able to attract and retain employees like police officers.
Councilwoman Kym Pine, who is leaving office after coming in fourth place in the mayoral primary, said she is looking forward to seeing what the new council will accomplish.
Pine said Kiaaiana is a skilled administrator who, fortunately, isn’t used to the “wheeling and dealing” of politics in the legislative branch. The outgoing councilwoman believes Say will be the “dad of the council” and offer his steadiness and experience to the lawmaking process. And she expects Tulba and Tupola will be highly motivated to make positive change.
“It’s going to be a very balanced council that is representative of the people, both with experienced politicians and people who haven’t done this before,” she said. “And that’s a good thing.”
Outgoing Council Chair Kobayashi said she is optimistic about the new city leaders, both on the council and administration sides. She said her parting wish is for unity.
“Don’t hold grudges,” she said. “Just keep moving forward. Work together. That is how you accomplish things, by finding common ground.”
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