The Honolulu City Council Can Be A Catalyst For Change - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Charmaine T. Doran

Charmaine T. Doran was a public servant in the legislative branch both in Honolulu and on the Big Island for more than 27 years. She currently serves on the Pearl City Neighborhood Board.


By constitutional design, the legislative branch can influence all aspects of government operations through legislation, investigating, and funding.

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In Honolulu, the City Council sits in this extraordinary position. All city agencies are subject to the council’s dictates and inquiries.

Day-to-day, the council executes these duties gently. However, every now and again, more than a soft touch has been needed.

Such was the case in 1976 when allegations of kickbacks provoked the council to launch a large-scale investigation into the Kukui Plaza project. The investigation unfolded over two years through a multitude of fascinating hearings and tense court cases. Unsavory city staff, shady security guards, scandalous developers, conflicted judges, and a pistol packing council chair — all featured prominently in the probe.

It was a messy and monumental undertaking that reverberated for decades. The investigation fueled several criminal cases and sparked discussions about switching to an elected prosecutor. It also reaffirmed the City Council’s vast legislative powers and the importance of transparency and ethics in city government.

Since the Kukui investigation, the City Council has acted swiftly to combat corruption with its legislative power when necessary. Our city is once again entangled in dozens of corruption cases involving numerous different departments.

Honolulu Hale.
The city’s legislative branch can do much more to improve Honolulu’s governance, if it so chooses. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Sadly, with this latest round of news reports on the rail project, kickbacks, police misconduct and more, the council’s response has amounted to nothing more than token discussions and the symbolic audit. Without doubt, the hands-off approach is always easiest to avoid political blowback.

Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be an “all or nothing” situation for the council. There are many politically safe actions that the City Council can take to increase accountability, transparency, and rebuild our city’s reputation.

What The Council Can Do

Like other jurisdictions, the City Council can reform the way it manages settlements and claims. They can abolish voluntary executive sessions and only close the doors when privacy is required by law. The council can also prohibit non-disclosure agreements and limit the city’s use of generic “admit no wrong-doing” liability clauses.

Similarly, rather than label a resolution “confidential” and then secretly insert the cost to taxpayers after a closed-door meeting, the council can mandate that each resolution for a settlement or to retain services is made public and includes costs, prior to action. The City Council’s existing settlement and claim rituals are all remnants of an old-fashioned government that cannot be justified today.

The City Council can eliminate all fees for public record requests. Fees are not legally required. The city is also prohibited from earning profits. As nearly all city departments have taxpayer-funded staff to manage records, charging the public for the same records looks and feels like the city is profiteering.

The City Council can adopt efficiency and transparency standards for all city departments. The slow and clandestine actions of agencies like the Ethics Commission, the Department of Planning and Permitting, and even the Corporation Counsel hinder the city’s ability to tackle serious misconduct issues and program deficiencies in a timely matter.

The City Council can work to establish a single department to house all boards and commissions. Several other U.S. cities already have. Currently, board staffing, funding, and operational rules vary so wildly that it is both worrisome and embarrassing.

The Deferred Compensation Board, Neighborhood Boards, the Youth Commission, the Arborist Committee, HART, and the rest — all perform important, often legally mandated work on behalf of the public. It is high time that the city act like it.

The City Council can work to eliminate “fox guarding the hen house” schemes in the city. For example, requiring that elected officials include tax returns with their financial disclosure forms will increase the integrity and accuracy of each self-filing.

Like the federal government model, restricting the hiring of political appointees and elected officials by semi-autonomous agencies will help to preserve the autonomy and legitimacy of these programs. Likewise, exempt employees serve throughout the city.

Fiscal oversight is the City Council’s most powerful tool.

Officially extending workplace violence, sexual harassment, and whistleblower protections to these employees is long overdue. True reform is not possible if the “fox” is both the decider of fates and complaints.

Fiscal oversight is the City Council’s most powerful tool. When it becomes apparent that a budget ordinance has been violated, as it was with the domestic violence shelter, the council must resist the urge to sweep it under the rug and throw more good money after bad. Instead, the City Council can mandate that this type of information is made public.

Unlike its 1976 counterpart, the Honolulu City Council of today may not desire to wield a firearm and plunge headfirst into a large-scale investigation about City corruption. And that’s OK. They can still take actions to mandate accountability, to increase transparency and to be a true catalyst for change.

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About the Author

Charmaine T. Doran

Charmaine T. Doran was a public servant in the legislative branch both in Honolulu and on the Big Island for more than 27 years. She currently serves on the Pearl City Neighborhood Board.


Latest Comments (0)

One party state, they own this miss.

anopenmind · 1 month ago

All very good points.  They can also look at ways to get more of private businesses (privatize) to run departments within the city.  None Union bid contracts and start eliminating positions and or departments with private sector jobs.  This would help the Honolulu tax payer and not fund retirements and medical plans for city employees for life.  Cant wait for you "Charmaine Doran) to run for City Counsel.  Sounds like you are a pragmatic person.  We need more of that. 

Stopthemadness · 1 month ago

Thank you, Charmaine.  Too often it seems councilmembers are content to accept run-around answers that are given without going the extra step of checking into information that is available to them.

Natalie_Iwasa · 1 month ago

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