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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters spoke with Tommy Waters and Esther Kiaʻāina, the chair and vice chair of the Honolulu City Council, on Wednesday. Both began by sharing some of their priorities including health, short-term rentals, housing, rail and the economy. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity and with an eye toward saving some of it for separate stories.
Tommy Waters: Health is No. 1. We all said if we don’t have our health, we don’t have anything. Well, the same thing applies to our city now. This pandemic is going nuts with the delta variant and, you know, we’ve been advocating for increased testing, increased isolation and quarantine beds and supporting our nonprofits to do this for us. I really believe that everybody thought we were out of the woods and we let our guard down. We stopped testing. We stopped funding the testing sites. And now you go to the airport and there’s a line all the way out to the parking lot. And thank goodness we started the Blaisdell and other remote testing sites. But that’s got to be No. 1.
You know, we talk about the economy, but if you solve the health crisis, then you solve the economic crisis. I think what the city is doing right, let’s look at where these infections are coming from. And it really is young people who are unvaccinated going out to bars and drinking. I like the idea of the health pass.
And I introduced (Resolution) 21-194 (urging health cards for establishments at high risk of Covid transmission), which created a huge storm of activity here at Honolulu Hale. There were probably 200 people banging on the glass, trying to get in, and of course not vaccinated and they weren’t wearing masks then. It was actually kind of a scary situation.
Housing. I’m the fifth of six kids all born and raised right here in Hawaii, and my dad was born and raised in McCully. None of my siblings live here anymore because they can’t afford to live here. It scares me to death to think that my two kids aren’t going to be able to afford to live here. My daughter is a junior and she’s already talked about going away for school and (she is) probably not coming back. How sad is that? I want my son to go to UH, so hopefully he can stay here.
But housing — we know that we’re 22,000 (housing) units short. The DBEDT study says that, right? I believe on Oahu over 50% of the need is with 80% (area median income).
“We’ve got to be able to show people that they can trust the current government, that they can trust their politicians.” — Tommy Waters
I don’t want to fault the previous administration. And I think they actually did a pretty good job in dealing with the pandemic. But, you know, when we spent millions of dollars on HPD overtime and toys for them where we really could have been dealing with homelessness? We’ve got to build places for these people to live. A homeless shelter system doesn’t work. People who are chronically homeless have been through the shelter system already and they’d rather be on the slopes of Diamond Head than in a shelter.
Talk about using (federal relief money). How about using it on broadband as well? How about cesspool replacement? How about upgrading our computer system? You know that the Department of Facility Maintenance still requires paper receipts and guess what? They lose them. I can’t believe it. These providers are asked to give their receipts to them so they can get reimbursed and then DPP loses the receipts. We’ve got to modernize that DPP. It takes a year and a half to get a permit from DPP.
I want to turn to the vice chair to maybe build on what Chair Waters had to say, and then we’ll go to some direct questions about some of these very topics.
Esther Kiaʻāina: For me, improving the quality of life for our local communities is an overriding value that I care deeply about, with regard to both the big picture as well as district specific issues that I have been working on. The affordable housing issue, of course, and I am an ardent advocate for an increase in the production of housing units, first on city properties. And of course, because we haven’t done a good job with regard to managing, we’ve actually alienated a lot of the lands. We need to look at acquisition of properties, private properties, as well as partnerships with the relevant state agencies.
In general, I have always believed in the leveraging of dollars to achieve a lot of our big picture objectives and affordable housing and homelessness clearly is one of them for the chair. The chair and I secured $170 million for affordable housing in the budget. That was a big improvement this year, as well as funding for increasing wraparound services for our homeless community. So clearly that’s paramount.
My feeling about economic development, of course, is that the county has failed (to produce) any comprehensive economic development strategy. And so this idea of focusing on revitalization related to the pandemic to me is short-sighted. And it’s the reason that we were not prepared to deal with what was happening in our tourism-dependent economy (when Covid hit). I’m tired of the pontification of our political leaders and all levels of government. If we are serious about diversification, then put our money where our mouth is.
To that end, I have been a strong proponent of agriculture. And not only did we pass a resolution supporting an agricultural grant program, we also (funded it) with $5 million; and it was difficult. I had to fight for every million and I couldn’t believe it. This was with our City Council. And I said, how is it that everybody says agriculture, food security? So for me, it was a lesson learned. We need to be past the point of talking about it and actually doing something.
And another area that I believe where we’ve gone (wrong) is with regard to leveraging of competitive federal grant funding. And so to that end I wanted a larger team, but we’ve got (only) two positions in the Office of Economic Revitalization. We are missing out on tens of millions of dollars of federal funding separate from the appropriations process.
“It’s your job to do your due diligence to make the tough decisions.” — Esther Kiaʻāina
So I have said over the budgetary process that all of us need to do a better job at working with two key appropriators from our Hawaii delegation, Senator Schatz and Representative Case, and going after competitive funds. I need not tell you that we have lost funding — we’ve been the only state sometimes for transportation funding where we didn’t get it.
In my district, of course, Haiku Stairs, which was a big issue and for me is symbolic of what I prioritize in the district. I’m going to be working on better enforcement of the ban on commercial activities along our beach corridor and pilot (projects) already on the books because it was never extended to Waimanalo. What do you think happened? The quality of life has been impacted. So I am going to be proposing a measure, already have it drafted, to ban all commercial activities along the line. And hopefully I’ll work with HPD and DLNR with regard to proper enforcement along the corridor.
Speaking of Haiku Stairs, its (removal) really is a remarkable development. What exactly made the difference this time around? Can this serve as a way to solve other longstanding problems? I’m thinking, for example, of the Waikiki Natatorium.
Kiaʻāina: Well, clearly, due diligence is important for any issue. I do an historical accounting of the pros and cons of the issue and why it has not moved forward. And so it’s troubling to me that the Friends of Haiku continue to mislead the people with some fantasy about managed access when in fact they themselves have not done their due diligence. At the end of the day without a legal access route which goes over both public and private land, they have no hope.
That tells me that even if I was on their side advocating for managed access, just based on my experience, it would have taken me years, probably a decade to have to negotiate all of these land agreements. Never mind put an order out for a program.
I believe, as a leader — because I’ve been in the business so long, I’ll be honest — I did not make my decision (just) to get reelected. I made my decision to do what is right. And the challenge with leaders is that sometimes they kick the can down the road. And when I looked at the totality of the circumstances, it didn’t need to be kicked down the road because the best course of action for all involved was to take it down. It didn’t come easy to me for the legitimate hikers who feel that I’m depriving them, I feel for them, but for all others who have disrespected the people, our rule of law, and our natural resources — not so much.
I believe it could be a model on how to deal with some of the thorny issues which I’m dealing with in Maunawili and Lanikai right now.
For years there has historically been a tension between the mayor and the council and, of course, factions within the council members themselves. What has been the working relationship with the new administration as well as your colleagues? There seems to be a lot of collegiality going on.
Waters: That’s exactly right. You know, I said from the very beginning, we can agree. We can disagree. We can agree to disagree, but let’s not be disagreeable. And I think we both came into it.
It started off meeting with them. We both came into it with that idea. Of course, I supported the other guy and the mayor knew that. And he made sure that I knew that. And at first, you know, it was a little bit rough. And I told him, you know, trust is earned now. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. I’ve never met the guy before that day, opening day.
“We spent millions of dollars on HPD overtime and toys for them when we really could have been dealing with homelessness.” — Tommy Waters
He’s a go-getter. I like his energy. I like him as a person. But I will tell you this. I’m seeing that his directors are kind of getting beaten down. And I’m hoping — and I want to have this conversation with the mayor. You got to coach up your directors. They all came from the private sector, a lot of them, and they don’t know how government works. You’ve got to motivate them, talk about all the good things that they can do if they just work a little harder, stay a little later.
At the same time, though, look at all the vacant positions within the parks department. It’s troubling to look at it, all across the board, and then you look at the aging of our workforce. If these people retire we’re in a world of hurt. And then look at HR because HR takes a year and a half to hire people.
There’s so many problems it’s kind of overwhelming, if you think about it, but to answer your question, we get along well.
I’m hearing pushback at the bureaucratic level, and mayors and council members come and go. But places like the Department of Planning and Permitting, which, as you know, had some pretty prominent (indictments) recently, stay entrenched. How do you come in with this energy and change these bureaucracies that move very slowly?
Kiaʻāina: Well, I guess I’ll be honest with you. I have a good working relationship. I’m a policy wonk and a problem-solver before I’m a politician. My job is just an avenue to get things done. All my life, that’s all I do. So what I do is — I just can’t help it — I assess the situation and figure out how to get an objective achieved whether it be legislative, budgetary or administrative.
So I’ve taken my skill sets that I’ve learned from the Senate, went to the House and the Obama administration, and have parlayed that to the City Council to work with the mayor, his administration to get things done.
For me, it’s all about respect, respect, respect, and failure to respect sometimes their own time frames or the bureaucratic challenges that they may have will not deter me from trying to seek my objective to things that may be small to others.
I’ve been thinking a lot about divisiveness lately. People are just so mad at each other over the vaccine mandates, over masks, over whatever. What are your thoughts — as elected officials, as public leaders — on how do you really heal these big cracks in the social fabric?
Waters: That’s really tough. You know, like I said, we had a very contentious hearing for Resolution 21-194. People showed up with bullhorns and noisemakers and they were actually pounding on the glass. And we stopped the hearing because we couldn’t hear the testifiers. It was that loud.
At that point in time, I thought about going outside and talking to folks and then decided not to because, one, folks claimed to be not vaccinated and they weren’t wearing their masks. And I didn’t want to put my own family and staff at risk. But I think you just got to keep treating people with compassion and try to understand their point of view and listen. And we did listen. We had over 5,000 pieces of written testimony and over 300 people who testified verbally, and I think that’s our role — we have to listen and take their point of view into account on decisions that we make and let them know that we are listening.
It gets really, really difficult when some of the points of view are really fringe. And it just comes from a distrust of government, I think.
“You have to be strong willed in your beliefs and not wishy-washy.” — Esther Kiaʻāina
And I guess to boil it all down, we’ve got to be able to show people that they can trust the current government, that they can trust their politicians. Sit down and talk to somebody for 45 minutes (when campaigning). Don’t rush the conversation. I think people really appreciate that.
Another thing that I’m working on, whenever I introduce a bill, I try to give it to the stakeholders before I actually introduce it and say, hey, give us your input. What do you think? Is this a good bill? If it’s a bad bill, why do you think it’s bad? How do we make it better?
One of the things I learned from Dwight Takamine eight years ago when he was (state House) finance chair, he said legislation is not easy and he’s right. It’s a skill. And part of the skill that he taught me was to bring in both sides, listen to both sides and try to massage it.
Kiaʻāina: Let me just say that running for office is not for the weak and is very challenging, but I think being elected leaders actually (makes it) tougher in making these decisions. And it’s not like it comes every now and then. It’s every day. Everything that you do is an all encompassing part of our life.
So first you have to be strong willed in your beliefs and not wishy-washy. I think when people are wishy-washy or kick the can down the road, it’s an unproductive use of all of our taxpayer dollars as well as being disingenuous to a community. So you need to be able to be strong.
I myself was not pleased with the banging on the windows. And if it didn’t stop, in addition to (the mayor) telling the police who thought he had it under control, we made some calls to all of our staff to call HPD directly. So it’s a new day where leaders have to physically protect themselves.
Second, our leaders have to be able to make the hard decisions at the end of the day. After all of that, are you going to be bullied or can you be swayed? So it’s your job to do your due diligence to make the tough decisions.
And lastly, in this job, you can’t expect people to agree with you. I’ve had horrible emails sent to me regarding Haiku and explaining how I’m a piece of work and threatening that, you know, “I will make sure I and everybody else will not vote for you,” all that kind of stuff. So we have to accept that we can’t please anyone and then move on.
I’d be really interested in hearing both of you talk about what is and what isn’t acceptable as you look at the (rail) situation that you find yourself in. There’s a huge shortfall and pressure to shorten the route, perhaps, and an election coming up next year. I’d really like to hear from both of you what is and what is not acceptable. For instance, there’s been a discussion already about the 3% hotel room tax as a possibility. Is that acceptable? Is that the direction you want to move? And where else would you like to go?
Waters: I must support our rail, even though I represent East Honolulu, and it’s somewhat of a contentious issue, but I really believe that it’ll work, especially when we talk about affordable housing — we need to be building affordable housing along the rail lines. I go out there and I see the traffic in the morning and it’s horrible. And when we talk about building 22,000 more units, where are they going to go? In East Honolulu there really is no room.
You have to build densely around the rail stations — Ala Moana TOD, for example, and out in the Ewa direction.
What I’m really concerned about is the fact that the (HART) board, they dropped the ball — there wasn’t enough oversight on what was going on. And by the way, it’s their job. It’s not the council’s job or the mayor’s job to find the funding. They’re supposed to figure this out and they’ve kind of punted it to us. But I’m not afraid to take up the mantle.
And talking about the 3%, you know, the City and County, I and previous councils made the promise — and I did during the campaign — they are not going to use real property taxes for rail. I put the skin in the game and I’m OK with that.
And my feeling is it’s not going to work unless you get to Ala Moana. It isn’t going to work if you stop at Keehi Lagoon. So we can kill two birds with one stone with this solution, I believe. You take that 3%, right, and you dedicate a portion of it — and I think that’s what the council needs, and the community needs, to debate is how much of that 3% and put that to HART and they can float bonds, presumably to get it done.
Now, the hotel industry is not going to like it. And maybe the timing is bad because the hotel or tourism industry is kind of waning right now because of the pandemic. But we talk about how to get tourists who come here to pay more. We’ve got to make them pay more for the repair of it, and that 3% does exactly that.
At the same time we got to shut down the TVUs and get people back into the hotels where it was zoned to be. Part of the problem is when we got 10 million people, you see 3 million of them are in our residential neighborhoods.
I’m working on a bill currently to do exactly that and I’ve been working with the state and stakeholders there to figure out how to collect the money without having to pay a fee to the state, and I’m hoping the HART board will endorse this and actually support it as well as HART and the mayor. We still need to find out whether or not they are going to endorse it. I hope they do, and I believe they will once we (hear) my bill.
My understanding is that’s not likely to be enough money. If they’re looking at a $3 billion-dollar-plus shortfall, maybe the money that you would get by floating bonds with that revenue stream would be a billion. And then you’re still left with a significant shortfall. What then?
Waters: Good point. And I think we’ve all got to put our heads together to figure out how to make up that shortfall. You’re right. It’s not going to be enough, especially if we’re looking at a $3.7 billion dollar shortfall. But my understanding is that the $3.7 billion was based on 100% probability. They’re saying we can definitely get to Ala Moana with $3.7 billion dollars.
But really, let’s think about it. What is the norm? What is the norm that the FTA expects and that is the industry norm? What is the normal probability? And let’s work off of that.
I wish (the Hawaii Community Development Authority) was under the city’s control. Instead of them squeezing us, let’s squeeze them. How about building us the rail and one mile in each direction if you want to build any more luxury condominiums in HCDA. How about Dillingham Boulevard? Same thing. Kamehameha Schools — you guys want to build over there? We’ll give you high density, go build us the rails stations and portions of the rail line.
But we’ve all got to be on board with this and then hold their feet to the fire because these developers are going to benefit. They’re going to benefit. But why not make us all benefit? You get affordable housing out of this. You get the rail built and they get to make a little bit of money.
Kiaʻāina: I certainly have been a supporter of rail because most of my own ohana and my own personal experience is from the West Side, both Ewa Plain as well as the Waianae Coast. So an hour and a half in traffic, I just think is not a good quality of life. But I’m as concerned as anybody else. Because if there’s no level of confidence now — and this is all across the board, county, state and federal — we’re going to have problems.
So let’s work with what we can work with. And so that would be the TAT. But to that end, especially since our districts aren’t impacted and I feel that we need to ensure that we balance what we do, not just for rail, but for other issues. I’m a proponent of ensuring that some of that funding goes to affordable housing and funding for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Department of Parks and Recreation for the city is one of the departments that impacts everyone. Everybody uses the parks. Everybody uses the beaches. And while I’m going to be looking at creative avenues like Hoomaluhia (Botanical Garden) in Kaneohe — it’s beautiful but it’s being impacted. I am looking at a user fee similar to Hanauma Bay so that it could be diverted back for improvements and also just weathering the increased impact from tourism.
So I don’t know the answer. At a certain point, if we don’t feel that it’s going to improve, then I think we need to figure out an alternative strategy. But for now, we have to exercise all that we can within our authority to support the HART board and the administration moving forward.
You’ve ruled out the use of property taxes for construction costs?
Waters: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, other than what we’ve already promised by the skin in the game.
And that you are looking at the 3% TAT and not only for rail, but for Parks and Recreation and so forth.
Kiaʻāina: Well, I know everyone’s going to have a different proposal, but those would be my priorities. Affordable housing as well.
Let’s move to short-term rentals. The administration has proposed some major rule changes. This is another issue that’s highly contentious, particularly for certain neighborhoods that are impacted.
Kiaʻāina: This goes back to the earlier question about how to balance an issue like this, because it looks like overwhelmingly people are opposed. And I think it’s the job of the policymaker to look at the impacts. I think it’s one of the most important issues that the City and County has faced in decades. And it has an opportunity to address some longstanding issues, that deal with quality of life issues.
I’m waiting to see the parameters of it. But I already made it clear on the enforcement part. Enforcement is one of the challenges that has plagued the effectiveness of the current law, Bill 89. And part of that is lack of capacity and funds. If you take a look at the County of Kauai, they have done an excellent job. I had been working with them. I got all their laws and regulations, shared it with DPP and said that the reason they’re successful is because of that version, because of money. And they do a good job.
Tax equity — who would not be for tax equity to make sure that the B&Bs and TVUs were adequately taxed? The contentious issue, I believe, is going to be the 180 days (rental requirement) versus 30 days. And in my neighborhood board presentations, I’ve been hearing a lot about it. So I would probably be looking at some exceptions for that. But a lot depends on the final number of the days that we have. I think we need to do what is feasibly possible to have the strongest law on the books with the proper enforcement authority and flexibility.
I’m hearing that you’re open, you’re receptive to what the mayor has proposed. Although you mentioned 180 days being particularly a sticking point.
Waters: There’s parts that I like about the bill, parts that I don’t like about the bill. You know, the part about giving the violations, the money, the fines and fees back to DPP so that they can hire people. We all know they’re short-staffed. And part of that is being able to get good investigators who are willing to act like a detective and go figure this out.
I don’t like the part about the apartment district in Waikiki and the Gold Coast area. I represent that area. The apartment district doesn’t want that. I’m OK with the mixed-use area, which is mauka of Kuhio Avenue. That’s OK. But certainly not the apartment district.
I agree with Esther concerning taxing them equally to what hotels pay, and that would serve as a further disincentive and actually a way to enforce. We know these folks are paying their GTE and TAT to the state. We need to work with the state. And (state tax director) Isaac Choy has been actually pretty good about his willingness to share that info with us. Because if you’re paying TAT, you’re running a bed and breakfast or a TVU. That’s another way to enforce.
The 180-day thing might be a little bit too much, even though the latest draft we have has exceptions. You know, I think there’s room for compromise, maybe 90 days rather than 180. But my concern is that when all those people came out to testify at the Planning Commission, that they were really upset about that. I kind of felt that they were really talking about their family members who were coming. They really were doing multiple 30-day contracts, right? That’s how they’re skirting it. I mean, how else were they doing it? The sledgehammer approach would make it a crime, but I don’t think that we’re ready for that yet.
Police accountability. I believe you’ve actually wanted to give more power, more teeth to the police commission. Comment on that. That’s a very important issue.
Waters: First and foremost, I think it’s important to have good commissioners. The council rejected two commissioners so far and then with Ann Botticelli, she kind of was taken through the wringer. But I think it was a positive thing in the sense that now she’s going to be more sensitive going forward to some of these issues that up until now haven’t really been in the forefront.
I want to see more training on how to deal with people who have mental illness and how to deal with the use of force and what not. A far as giving them more teeth, I was working on that quite a bit when I was the Public Safety chair. However, I have kind of delegated that issue to the current chair, and I’m kind of waiting for her to take the mantle and run with it. Of course, if she doesn’t I may take that issue back.
What would it take to give the police commission some more teeth and more oversight? There has been some talk about maybe some ballot measures to put in place a different kind of citizen oversight panel.
Waters: That’s certainly something that I’m looking into. The more you look into this and after, of course, the (former Chief Louis) Kealoha situation — when a chief does something wrong, who really is there to punish her? Because the commission only makes a recommendation to the chief, even if they find that there is some wrongdoing. They only recommend it. They don’t actually mete out the punishment. And it’s really kind of a weird situation. The chief does something wrong and the commission says that she should be punished and then give it back to the chief, to punish herself. And to me, that just doesn’t work.
And you remember what the chief’s response was? Well, you need to get a good chief, which to me just blew my mind when she said that. But with so many things and the pandemic and my focus as chair on affordable housing and TVUs and monster homes and everything else that we’ve talked about, I have kind of put that on the side. But it’s certainly worth looking at and I know staff has got different ideas and things actually drafted. It’s just whether or not we’re going to make that a priority right now.
Kiaʻāina: All eyes are on who the new (police) chief is. And I do believe that the acting chief has displayed the kind of demeanor and the level of decorum that is necessary to work productively with the City Council in addressing some of the systemic challenges that plague our communities and his outreach to these communities. I think increased training for these officers and partnerships with a lot of the community-based organizations that serve these communities would bode well for any chief.
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