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About the Author
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 reporters spoke with Laura Thielen, director of the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, and deputy director Kehaulani Puu on Tuesday. Here are just a few highlights from our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity. Some material will also be used for related news stories.
Thielen: I used to work at the (state) Department of Land and Natural Resources. And to me, the city Parks and Recreation is kind of the equivalent, in that it’s the city holder of the lands that are kind of a public trust area. Parks and Recreation is really for the island of Oahu. The constitutional right to have public access to the ocean is primarily through our beach parks and our beach right of way. And that’s all under Department of Parks and Recreation.
I grew up here, and we think of ourselves as being rural. But when you take a look at our land area that’s developed and the population on this island, we are more densely populated per square mile than the most densely populated state, which is New Jersey.
So having these public spaces and access to these open beaches, I just think is so important for our residents. It’s a place for just a release, a place to get out of hot, crowded housing to have a break with your kids. When my kids were young and I picked them up from daycare, from work, everybody’s kind of cranky. You head to a beach park. People just kind of cool down with the juice box. So it’s really integral to our quality of life.
So when I started, I went around and started meeting with all the staff. We’re divided into five districts and I spent a day with each district manager and had them take me to all the places. (I asked) what are you proud of? What are your biggest challenges? All of them were talking to me about the programs that are run by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
And I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised by that because I did yoga classes, I did all those other things growing up and as an adult. The staff started talking to me about the Summer Fun Program and the youth development program and the kupuna program. I started to realize that this department is much more than just places.
It’s also about the development of people and the human resources on our island. And that’s where I started thinking about what can we do to make that robust, not just the daily maintenance of the park places, but also to be working with our people. Because I’m a firm believer that we have to invest in our human resources. We’re not going to succeed as a state unless we have strong people here.
And so that’s when I started looking for a deputy director who had a background in programs, because I don’t have that background. I’m much more in the land management. And that’s when we were fortunate to snatch Kehaulani Puu away from Kamehameha Schools, the community education program, and to bring her into our department.
The two areas that we want to talk with you folks about are kind of the day-to-day operations. How do we have these places cared for and how do we build for the future with the population demographic changes on the island? And then how do we revitalize our programs to invest in human resources?
Puu: As Laura shared, she was looking for a deputy, she was looking for somebody representing some background in programming. And I was with Kamehameha for 13 years working in community education. These are programs that are out in communities serving students who are on campus. I met Laura and heard about the work that she wanted to do, like revitalizing our programming, focusing on leadership and youth development.
I just felt like this was the right place to come (to). I feel like education is my path. It’s my way of giving back. That’s my kuleana. I feel like I’ve been blessed with lots of opportunities. So this was an awesome opportunity to do that. I was a Summer Fun kid, too, so this was great.
We’re working with staff but trying to refresh and revitalize our programs. We want to be impactful. We want to be of service to the community. We want to be relevant. And that’s going to take time.
You guys have 800 people working at Parks and Recreation. These gardens and parks (and beach right of ways and pedestrian malls) are located on 5,000 acres of land here on Oahu. Do you get a sense that a lot of people don’t quite realize how big your department is?
Thielen: Yes, I do. So I think it’s now 306 parks. There’s 89 beach right of ways. The 306 parks are the developed parks. In addition to that, we have a lot of undeveloped land. Some of that is adjacent to parks and people just utilize it as a park. But it’s not irrigated, and it doesn’t have a comfort station.
And some others are inventories of land that the department picked up over the years because people didn’t want it developed. I think back in the day there were people buying up lands along the North Shore and other areas, and so these are just kind of wild lands.
“You head to a beach park. People just kind of cool down. It’s integral to our quality of life.” — Laura Thielen
But there is an obligation to care for them because there’s a lot of people that are going in and utilizing them. We have the five botanical gardens, and then the Division of Urban Forestry, which includes the botanical gardens, also manages all of the City and County street trees in addition to all the trees in the public parks and some of the other public lands.
So yeah, it’s a big department. I think that 800 number is our authorized positions. There are also contract positions that we have in addition to that, like the park attendants who may be opening up the gyms after hours, seasonal workers that come in to help with the Summer Fun stuff, but I’ve got 800.
I don’t think all of those positions are filled. This mayor did end the hiring freeze, and so we are trying to fill some positions now. But just due to city budget deficits and having to be cautious with Covid, we’re still not getting back up to the 800. So it’s been tough.
What is your annual budget size?
Thielen: About $86 million.
Where is your department falling short in your ideal funding needs?
Thielen: Well, I think there’s a couple of areas that we’re looking at. I think people have been trying to do maintenance through capital improvement projects. So one of the discussions we’re having with the administration is really large-scale repair and maintenance and the daily maintenance and preventive maintenance. They’re not really capital improvement projects, and we can’t use those bond monies for those. They’re not 20-year projects.
The big example is Halawa Gym — it is a huge gymnasium and complex of additional buildings. It has a massive roof and it’s leaking. We sent some staff up there to take a look at it, and what they’ve told us is they think the roof integrity is fine, but along the edges of these roofs, where the roof meets the top of the ceiling you have a seam. And so there’s flashing and caulking that goes along those seams. That doesn’t last 20 years; that degrades. But replacing that flashing and caulking is not a 20-year contract.
You can’t fund that with capital improvement money. That has to come out of operating budgets. And I think we’ve got to take a look at kind of a shift in that and really be working on the maintenance side, which we can do in a much more efficient manner than CIP projects. It’s not as complex to do the permitting, to be able to go replace flashing and caulking on a roof. It’s a fairly simple job.
Kehau, anything you wanted to add to that?
Puu: No, I think that’s a huge focus for us, and I think on the recreation side, we like to invest more in our programming. That’s another area. It’s not a lot, but we serve so many people — pre-Covid I think we were serving almost 18,000 people this summer. Even with Covid, we serve almost 6,000 students.
Covid was good in that I think our programs were forced to go virtual to be more accessible without having to be in-person. We’d love to invest more in technology for our staff. We’re very limited. We had some instances where staff had to take the desktop out into the gym and be hooked up with the power cord and everything in order to run a Zoom class because our technology is so limited. So that’s definitely an area where we’d like to invest.
Is it fair to say your department is trying to move more, as Covid restrictions ease, toward getting “the human” back into these ongoing engagements.
Thielen: Actually, to give the department a huge credit, DPR has been doing Summer Fun in-person. The first summer Covid hit, they did one month instead of two months, and they did a reduced number of kids in order to keep social distancing. This past summer, we expanded it back to the full two-month program. We invested some additional money, we got some CARES money and some other money.
And we found we were really pushing it as a means to get kids more socialized before going back to school this fall. And a number of the Summer Fun leaders that I talked to were saying that these kids really needed it because they had been doing 100% distance activities.
Things they mentioned included being able to lose gracefully. They were noticing a lot of the kids they had in there couldn’t handle that feeling in a game that was being played. They just had kind of lost those social skills. And I would love to be able to have more of a conversation with the (Department of Education) to be able to kind of follow those kids to find out (whether they were) able to (get) better once school started this year. I think that made a big difference for a lot of those kids.
I want to ask one more budget question here. We had Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters and Vice Chair Esther Kiaaina on for our most recent Q&A, and both of them talked about Bill 40 regarding the transient accommodations tax for the counties. Kiaaina particularly expressed a desire to be able to direct money from that 3% — I don’t know how much would go for rail — but she in particular said she’d like to get some more money directed to Parks and Recreation. I don’t want to go above your pay grade, but is there a need for more funding?
Thielen: Well, I would say that is a little bit going above my pay grade. But Esther was also at DLNR, and she was the deputy director there for a little while. So she’s familiar with how the state had managed the TAT, and funding under that did go to state parks. So I’m not surprised that she’s raising it here.
I know that the Council members and the mayor all have a tough job because there’s a lot of needs on the island. I’m really glad that the city has, I think, for the first time since 1978, a new taxing authority and that it’s not related just to property taxes. So it has another source of revenue that’s not reliant on the promotion of the development of land. It can be the development of a better tourism industry that’s located in Waikiki, or different things like that.
I think what’s important for the Department of Parks and Recreation is that, whatever the sources of funding or support are, we would like them to come in a manner that we can utilize them more efficiently. We would like things to be supplemental, not supplanting — to be able to support the operation of these really important places for the people of the City and County of Honolulu.
Shifting gears here, I want to bring up Hanauma Bay online reservation system. You also raised fees recently for non-locals, from $12 to $25. How’s that working out? Has it been succeeding even with the the impact on tourism right now because of Covid?
Thielen: Yeah. And what’s been interesting, because of Covid, the city started allowing a limited number of people who could come in because of having to do the social distancing during the (orientation) video. And so the size of the theater and the social distancing kind of put us into a limit on the numbers going into and out of it. And I think we should keep those limits, and we have the ability to under our parks rules. It’s up to 1,400 reservations a day in coming in.
We heard from a number of residents, because (the) reservations are going so fast, even with the increased fee, that they book up right away. A number of residents were frustrated at not being able to get in. So we opened up for residents. We have a lot of people that come in early in the morning for regular swimming. Residents can come in without reservations. And we did a two-week pilot where we did a whole day, and residents really liked that and we’d like to continue it. But we’ve got limited staff right now, partly because the revenues coming in have decreased. And so, you know, we were trying to resolve that problem.
We need to get to online payments.
For Hanauma Bay, we wouldn’t do a refund. It’s like a movie theater. If you make a reservation and decide not to go, you eat the cost.
But the problem is, sometimes the jellyfish come in, sometimes the sewage breaks. And so then we have to send everybody home. And that could be three days worth of people, which is, you know, potentially 4,000 people that you’re having to refund all at once. So we’re trying to work through that, through an online payment with a credit card. We are very close to doing that. We should get back into the black, and we’ll be able to take care of a lot of these other things. But I think it’s helped a lot with the parking and the backups on the highway. And it’s definitely helped to manage the crowds.
You mentioned the parking challenges and the crowds. I want to bring up the idea of green fees, in order to help keep up with this maintenance that we’re all talking about.
Thielen: I think we do need to look at that, and there are certain places where it’s physically easier to charge. Hanauma has a single entry point. Foster Gardens does have a fee — it’s a single entry point. I think it’s appropriate to be charging visitors, not residents. That’s a single entry point. And we’re in discussions about what we can do on those things. Other areas, it’s very difficult because Ala Moana Beach Park, how do you charge? There’s so many places where people can walk in there. So we have to look at other ways to be able to have that type of revenue.
Speaking of Ala Moana Beach Park, I’m so glad you finally finished the repaving of the Magic Island parking lot. It was very frustrating for those of us who frequent the area. I think the most common complaint — and it must frustrate you to hear this — is how come there’s no soap and toilet paper in the bathrooms?
Thielen: Well, I tend to go to a lot of park bathrooms every time I’m in a park, and I’m pretty happy with the toilet paper situation. I think the soap and some other challenges is being able to retain things there. There’s a lot of vandalism. We were interviewing for the head of our maintenance support section and going through a bunch of interviews and a number of people in-house applied for it. And you know, one of the guys there was saying if it weren’t for the vandalism, we could get ahead on the maintenance. But it’s just always having to react to that.
I want to give Kehau an opportunity to talk a little bit about some of the things we’re trying to do in the recreation program to really strengthen the sense of responsibility and shared ownership of these places. Because very few people go around in their own house with a baseball bat and destroy things. And so if there’s more of a sense in the community that these parks are their parks, perhaps that could change some things.
Puu: When I started working here, I was interviewed by one of your reporters, Kuʻu Kauanoe, to talk about a lot of the challenges we have out here in our Leeward side. We see a lot of the illegal dumping, vandalism. A lot of these things are happening in our parks, and so one of the things that we’ve revised recently is our adopt-a-park program. That was on pause for a little while. We’re just starting to reconnect with former groups who were already adopters and then bringing in groups, which we love, right? Because we love that we have our community helping out.
In that interview, I said we need everybody to help malama and care for our parks and our programs. We really want to instill a sense of connection, to honor those who come to our parks to really try and build that connection to place. You know, we have a lot of parks, but I didn’t really follow a practice. By instilling that in our programs, it’ll be another way to foster relationships, connection and aloha, learning the history of that place.
The other thing that I love that’s happening — it’s coming from community — is reclaiming space. Just recently we had a ceremony out at Kaneohe Bay Beach Park. It was renamed Naonealaa a Kaneohe. And there’s olelo attached to that. I call them long-term strategies, because we are doing the quick fixes, like Laura said. We try to react and respond as quickly as we can to the things that are happening. But I see education, a growing sense of community, a sense-of-place connection as hopefully another way to address the challenges and to have people love, respect, embrace that and feel a sense of ownership.
I did want to bring up a couple of items that have been in the news. That beach right of way at Portlock — has that finally been resolved for good?
Thielen: I’ll tell you, one of the better days, as the director of the department, was when there was an unauthorized gate that was taken down — after we finally took the property, we sent our crew down there and we removed the gate and it was wonderful to be able to have that area be open and have it be resolved.
Earlier this summer, you opened up lap swimming again for pools, and I think you’re moving to open the pools up more generally again because of Covid.
Thielen: The lap swimming has been open for quite some time. We increased the numbers of people allowed in the pool since I started. Lap swimmers, you’re breathing out under chlorinated water. You’re not on top of each other. So we just got that closer to kind of what it was before.
“We need everybody to help malama and care for our parks and our programs.” — Kehaulani Puu
Under the outdoor sports (requirements), we are allowed to permit activities — some of the swim teams and other groups have come on back. They’ve been able to participate under the restrictions for outdoor sports, which are separate from the general things where two teams can compete and things like that. So that’s coming back in.
I think the one thing we’re still working on is the free swim, because that does get a little bit more, you know, on top of each other. So we’re kind of going through some consultation about how to be able to do that still.
You mentioned the reopening of the gyms. I’m assuming that includes — given the mayor’s restrictions — that you comply with Covid protocol — wearing masks, socially distance — that’s all in place and enforced.
Thielen: Yeah, we have indoor guidelines that we ran through consultation. We’re using the safer working practices for reopening our indoor facilities, and we phase that in. We started with the passive activities. You had some activities that are not athletic that were taking place indoors. Ceramics, arts and crafts, lapidary and things like that.
Then we moved to the gymnasiums. I think that started Oct.18. And we started working with the permitted leagues, which is similar to how we do it with the outdoor fields because they tend to be the most organized. They’re responsible for making sure that their groups are complying with the Covid safety protocols and that they’re familiar with it. And so we’re following the same practice we did with reopening outdoor sports, and then we’ll start to phase in the other activities.
I wonder about the impact of the vaccine or testing mandate on your staff and operations. Have you had a lot of staff leave or difficulty recruiting or have you had to fire anybody?
Thielen: For the most part, our full-time civil-service staff with 800 people are pretty much on par with all the other city departments. We have a fairly high vaccination rate, according to our managers. A number of people who were hesitant, (it) kind of got them off the fence. So a lot of people have been going to get vaccines. It seems to be working now; more of the people that are asking for the exemption and waiting for a ruling on the exemption tends to be our contract staff.
As you’re finding nationally, what are they calling it now, the “great resignation” across the nation means that a number of people are kind of reassessing work-life balance and what they want to do. I just think some of those folks on the contract side are trying to figure out if they want to come back and do the work.
Is the weekly testing going to work if you’re coming in once every other week? Or, you know, “I don’t have to deal with that because I’m on contract for Summer Fun, so I’ll deal with it when we get to next summer.” That kind of thing. But I think similar to other businesses, the city and the state (are) going to have to really look at how we deal with some of these positions because everybody is finding it harder to hire.
If I understand correctly, the the City and County and Parks and Recreation in particular partnered with the Hawaii Tourism Authority to install security cameras both at Ala Moana and Kapiolani parks and two others. Can you give us an update where we are on those?
Thielen: Those are up, they’re operating. There were some questions about a few of them, about kind of where they’re pointed. We addressed those and we’ve been in consultation with folks. But I know I’ve signed off on a couple of things recently where the police have contacted us and asked us for the security footage because of a crime that had been committed in the area.
We have a lot of communities that are asking for more, (saying) that they would like security cameras in their area. The challenge for parks is you need these to have wireless access, because if the film is contained in the camera, if the camera’s destroyed, you’ve lost it. So you really need it being downloaded. And a lot of our parks are in remote areas and don’t necessarily have wireless access going to these places.
So we’re trying to work with (the Department of Transportation Services) in looking at some improvements they’re doing out along the Leeward Coast, where they’re going to be bringing wireless and fiber optic to some level. We’re not sure whether it’s at the level that can support that type of work, but we’re trying to work with them and others.
“We need to be investing in building the facilities to support the recreation needs of the population.” — Laura Thielen
It would also have a benefit as to how much we’d like our Summer Fun program, our computer programs and other things to have a digital component to them. I mean, think about how many kupuna didn’t know how to use technology and then going into Covid — it was really, really isolating. So a lot of our staff were on the phone with the members of their computer clubs, kind of talking them through how to do this. As they come back, it’d be really nice to have that component kind of integrated.
There are now 108 security cameras at 11 park locations, most located on the exterior of comfort station facilities and positioned to focus on the entrance/exit of the facility.
You recently traveled to New York, which has a wonderful Central Park. When you look at other cities, other municipalities and see what they’re doing, is there an idea or two that you think could be implanted here?
Thielen: Oh, boy, there are like a billion things that I would like to do. I just want to say that, just from this recent trip, that I think Hawaii does very well in having that access to the ocean.
We (also) have a lot of people that are very into sports in Hawaii, and we could use twice the number of fields that we have, and I think they would be booked out. But we do have a lot of fields in comparison to Manhattan or even Brooklyn. We do have a lot of assets for people to be able to go out to and to utilize.
I think I’d like to have more programs, because the national data seems to show that more people will participate in getting into outdoor activities and parks if there are formal programs. So I think that’s really important. What I think we really need is, Oahu invested a lot of money in park infrastructure facilities up through about (Mayor) Jeremy Harris. And then we’ve just had this up and down economic cycle after that.
And when you take a look at a map of Oahu and you see where all our gyms are and where all our pools are, we have not invested in Kapolei or Ewa or the Leeward Coast or anywhere between Kaneohe and Wailua. And you know, those are our population growth areas.
For Kapolei and the Leeward Coast, we’ve had 20 years of putting people out there. We have one gym that went into Ewa just a few years ago and nothing from Ewa all the way out to Waianae — the gymnasiums. We have one tiny pool in Makakilo, but really nothing from Pearl City out to that whole area on the island. So for equity purposes, for being able to serve the areas where we’ve shoved everybody on the island, we really need to be investing in building the facilities to support the recreation needs of the population.
Kehau, any any ideas that you’d like to see in terms of Parks and Recreation?
Puu: I’m working on that. I kind of look internally, and I mine the brains of our staff, people who are confident and have been doing this for a really long time. I’m with Laura on creating more equity and really looking at how we’re distributing our resources more equitably across the island. I’m a Leeward Coast resident.
We have five districts, but one district spans from Waimanalo all the way up to Wailua. And you know, having the same kind of structure across five districts is not equal. I think that’s a big area for us. But right, the maintenance of the facilities, being able to track what we have and really looking at creating more equity across our parks. And our communities are demanding it.
Thielen: If I can follow up on that, I just did want to say that some of this equity stuff we’ve already been tackling. As Kehau was mentioning, the islands are divided up into districts, but this was done a long time ago when the population was very different. So District 1 is kind of the Kaiwi Point, I guess up to Punahou and McCully, and District 2, McCully out to Aiea. And so they are very compact districts, that’s where most of the population lived back in the day. District 3 goes from Pearl City all the way through up into Mililani, down into Ewa and Kapolei and the Leeward Coast. It’s massive. And then District 4 is the Windward Side and then the entire North Shore out to Dillingham (Field). We’ve broken up District 3 into two districts, and we just got approval for that. That was started about two or three years ago with a discussion, and we finally got it under this administration and thought it through. We’re finalizing it.
So now we’ll have one manager that handles the Pearl City-Mililani area and the other manager that’s going to handle the Ewa-Leeward coast. It’s going to be a lot more manageable at that point. It’s providing some additional staff to the areas, and we’re talking to the mayor and the Council about making sure that we can have the right equipment to be able to manage those two independent districts.
And now we’re kind of turning our attention to that long strip from Makapuu to all the way out to Dillingham. If you’ve got a mowing crew or a rubbish pickup truck — you know, good luck on the weekends because that’s just choke traffic. So, there’s some things like that that we’ve got to get to to fix, to have equity in just things like rubbish pickup, being able to stock the bathrooms, being able to clean them and to do the other things.
It took an hour for somebody the other day just to reach a park to respond to a broken water problem, because you have to have building maintenance, repair people to handle that entire coastline. It’s not working, and we’ve got to modernize the structure of the department just to meet the demographics of the island today.
Speaking of equity and communities on Oahu, we’ve reported on community gardens. How many of them are concentrated more in the urban area, and is there a desire to have more out west or on the Windward Side?
Thielen: Yeah, yeah. With the group out in the Kapolei area, we’ve talked to them about an adoptive park. They were also involved in some of the art displays out in the area, so that’s moving forward. But I have talked to Councilwoman Andria Tupola about this as well. And she said that there’s a lot of community gardens that other organizations manage outside of the park system.
We told them that we would be happy to have our website used for informational purposes on these other community gardens to be able to have points of contact and things like that to be able to keep that information going.
The Community (Recreational) Garden Program is run by our Botanical Garden Group, and they’re located in Honolulu. So one of the things we want to have open for discussion as part of the adoptive park, (it) doesn’t necessarily make sense to have botanical garden people of Honolulu (if) we were going all the way up to Leeward Coast.
I wanted to ask you guys about an email I got recently. This person is a tennis player and they use the courts at Ala Moana. And they were frustrated feeling that for-profit tennis sessions were hogging the court. So it sort of raises the issue of how do you balance commercial interests using our parks versus the needs of individuals?
Thielen: That’s always a tough question in general. On the tennis stuff, I can say that we’re looking at the rules and practices now. I think what’s happened is that there’s been a long standing practice of nonprofits being able to provide lessons to people. The practice in parks is they do not permit tennis courts in a park where there are fewer than four tennis courts. If there’s more than four tennis courts, they will allow groups to permit half and leave half open for first-come, first-served people. And it seems like that’s worked, that informal practice, for a while.
But one of the challenges that’s come up is now there’s additional nonprofits that are stepping in and there seems to be some competition between the groups. I know that there’s some finger-pointing about for-profit, nonprofit, but these are all nonprofits. The NFL is a nonprofit, you know. But the point is that it seems to be picking up. And so we need to be going back and taking a look at what’s the solution. Because I don’t think that the prior practice is going to be something that’s sustainable.
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