Almost half the seats in the Honolulu City Council — four out of the nine council positions — are up for grabs this year in an election that will directly affect hundreds of thousands of voters on Oahu.

Members of the island’s neighborhood boards, unpaid voluntary civic organizations that represent the interests of local communities, are watching warily to see who will win the coveted slots.

In interviews conducted over the past week, members of the approximately 20 boards that will be most directly affected by the political turnover shared their hopes and fears about the pending transition to a new roster.

Neighborhood boards reflect the political grassroots on Oahu. In 2019, residents converged at a meeting of the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board to oppose a city-funded sports complex at a popular beachpark. Ku'u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2019

Demanding Change

“We’re going to get a brand-new council person,” said Danielle Bass, chairman of the Mililani/Waipio Neighborhood Board, a community that is struggling with homelessness and high housing costs and is looking for inspired leadership. “There’s going to be a learning curve, obviously.”

Stephen Wood, chairman of the Aiea Neighborhood Board, feels slighted. Though the Aiea community is navigating major changes, including construction of a new jail and stadium within its borders, both massive projects, Wood worries that Aiea is being overlooked by the candidates.

“Out of all the candidates, no one has reached out to us,” he said.

The election comes at a time neighborhoods across Oahu already are dealing with a raft of problems. In addition to statewide housing concerns, they are still coping with the coronavirus pandemic, gnashing their teeth over the resurgence of traffic, snarling at renewed parking woes, deploring the construction of monster homes, protesting development, lamenting the return of tourism and keeping a troubled eye on decrepit parks and fraying infrastructure.

In addition, each neighborhood also has its own particular set of challenges.

The erosion on heavily traveled Kamehameha Highway is a constant worry for Dotty Kelly-Paddock, a member of the Koolauloa board, but she sees little will to make permanent fixes. Kalihi Valley residents want a permanent extension of the restricted parking zone that they say proved such a success as a pilot program in the past but that city transportation officials have not embraced and allowed to continue.

Iwi Kupuna Erosion Kaaawa Kamehameha Highway
Koolauloa residents worry about beach erosion on Kamehameha Highway and are hoping for long-term fixes to the problem. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

Crowded Primary Races

The North Shore wants tighter land-use regulation enforcement and more police; in Makiki, residents are asking for a crackdown on people running stop signs. Both requests would require additional city staffing. In the Diamond Head area, a dispute over the ownership and use of Leahi Avenue has brought neighbors to the boiling point. They want action, fast.

These are the kinds of issues that typically end up before the City Council. Council members have more direct power over the island’s residents than state legislators because they oversee many of the agencies that provide direct service to the community.

Consequently, when controversial issues at last reach the halls of government, it makes a big difference who is sitting in the chairs at Honolulu Hale.

Nobody is more aware of that nexus of power than the volunteers who serve on the city’s 33 neighborhood boards, the city’s political grassroots, where ordinary residents often turn first for help when problems erupt.

The boards seek to address concerns by reaching out at their monthly meetings to council members who attend regularly and hope that the council member has the power to help or make changes and is akamai enough to figure out how to get things done.

The mayor’s office is ultimately the place where most decisions are made about how to handle controversial issues, but the council still has a powerful voice.

Of the nine council seats, three are open seats this year — Districts 2, 6 and 8 — and will be on the Aug. 13 primary ballot. In District 4, incumbent Tommy Waters faces a single challenger so by law that race will only appear on the general election ballot in November.

According to the Office of the City Clerk of the Elections Division, approximately 262,000 voters are constituents for these seats, or about 47% of an estimated electorate of about 560,600 voters on Oahu.

“If you are a board member for a while, you have a front-row seat on issues in the community.” — Lloyd Yonenaka of the Neighborhood Commission Office

District 2 stretches north from Wahiawa to the North Shore to Kahaluu; District 4 sweeps the eastern end of the island, from Hawaii Kai to Waikiki; District 6 is an urban hub north of downtown that includes Nuuanu/Punchbowl, Makiki and Chinatown; and District 8 is clustered around growing communities in the center of the island such as Aiea, Pearl City and Mililani.

There’s also another wrinkle. Some council boundaries are changing because of reapportionment due to population shifts revealed by the 2020 census.

After the election, about 20 neighborhood boards will find themselves turning to someone new for help for residents who live within their boundaries. Some neighborhood boards’ territories will shift as well, although that is still in flux because the Honolulu Neighborhood Commission is still working on the map overlays that let it make the final boundary determinations.

Generally, however, it is believed that parts of District 8 will join District 9 and that some boards will have two or even three council members, some old and some new, to represent their interests. The two Mililani boards — Mililani Mauka and Mililani/Waipio — will be shifted into the same council district, represented by the District 8 council member, bringing them into the Pearl City orbit rather than in alignment with the North Shore.

Three of the four races feature relative newcomers vying against people who are much better known.

Only one incumbent is running for reelection — Tommy Waters, who was first elected to the District 4 post in 2019, will square off in the Nov. 8 general election against a sole challenger, Kaleo Nakoa, who serves on the Hawaii Kai neighborhood board.

Honolulu City Council chair Tommy Waters during floor session.
Honolulu City Council chair Tommy Waters is the only incumbent running for reelection. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

There’s a crowded primary field in District 2 to select a new council member to replace Heidi Tsuneyoshi, a Republican who is running for governor. The candidates vying for the seat include Racquel Achiu, Lupe Funaki, Makuakai Rothman, Chad Tsuneyoshi and Matt Weyer, according to the state elections board.

District 6 has eight candidates hoping to replace political stalwart Carol Fukunaga, who is term-limited and is instead running for the Democratic nomination for Senate District 11 against Makiki/Tantalus board president Ian Ross. The field for the council seat includes Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, Ikaika Hussey, Nalani Jenkins, Chance K. Naauao-Ota, Zachary B. Burd, Dennis Masaru Nakasato, Traci K. Toguchi and Chad Toshiro Wolke.

New Faces

Brandon Elefante, who has held the District 8 slot, is also moving on because of term limits. He is running for state Senate District 16. The five candidates hoping to replace him are Val Okimoto, Keone Simon, Ron Menor, Charmaine Doran and Dion Mesta.

The Aug. 13 primary will whittle the candidates down to two for each race — if no one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote — who will then face each other in the general election.

Many of the candidates running for office come from the ranks of the neighborhood boards.

Racquel Achiu, who serves on the North Shore neighborhood board, is running for the District 2 post. Matt Weyer, who is running against Achiu, serves on the board in Waipahu.

The same pattern is visible in District 6. Dos Santos-Tam, running for that district seat, was formerly a member of the Liliha/Puunui/Alewa Neighborhood Board, as was Wolke. Naauao-Ota is serving on the board now.

So many former and current board members are running for the same City Council seat that Wesley Fong, who chairs the board, said he just says “good luck, and good luck, and good luck” to each.

“They know all the grassroots issues,” he said. “They are not coming in cold.”

Service on a neighborhood board is useful because it provides prospective council members with a good grounding on how the city really works, said Lloyd Yonenaka, executive secretary of the Neighborhood Commission Office, which oversees the boards.

“If you are a board member for a while, you have a front-row seat on issues in the community,” Yonenaka said.

Bob Leinau, treasurer of the North Shore Neighborhood Board, is worried that some of the candidates are political neophytes.

“You can’t just get elected because it is a popularity contest,” he said. “Some of the people running may have good intentions, but they lack experience. You are supposed to know a lot.”

Silvia Koch, vice chair of the Wahiawa-Whitmore Village Neighborhood Board, also said she thinks some of the candidates are not fully prepared for the jump into the political ring.

“They really feel they are qualified and I want to laugh,” she said. “A legend in their own minds.”

Kelly-Paddock, who lives in Haaula, said she wants candidates with experience dealing with the problems they share with the North Shore.

“I prefer to go with someone with their boots muddy from being in the trenches dealing with the issues we have,” she said.

Waipahu’s future is at risk as the rail project progresses, said Richard Oshiro, who has been on the Waipahu Neighborhood Board since 1989. The rail is badly needed, he said, but recent changes to the plan have eliminated for now the parking structure commuters need to access it. He worries that dense development will come to Waipahu without the rail delivering enough capacity to help solve residents’ transportation problems.

HART rail cars at the Rail Operations Center (ROC) located in Waipahu next to the Leeward Community College.
Waipahu neighborhood board members are worried about the progress of rail, which has its operations center in their neighborhood. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“The City Council race is very important as to how these kinds of projects move forward,” Oshiro said. “If the council member is not of the same mind — providing a balance between affordable housing and the desires of the community,” then Waipahu could be adversely affected, he said.

Kathleen Pahinui, who chairs the North Shore board, said developers are getting away with buying agricultural land and subdividing it for home construction, and that residents are forgoing the necessary approvals and building un-permitted septic systems.

“There are too many people doing what they want to do,” she said. “People are flouting the land-use rules.”

Real estate development is deeply unpopular this year on the North Shore and Hawaii Kai.

“Whoever gets in is going to be scrutinized closely,” Pahinui said. “If we think they are in the pockets of the developers that won’t be good for them.”

Listening To The Community

In Hawaii Kai, “the community is pretty much up in arms,” over a high-end, dense senior citizen housing complex, said Herb Schreiner, a member of the Hawaii Kai board.

“We are looking for five council members to oppose it,” said Greg Knudsen, another Hawaii Kai board member.

Drivers who ignore stop signs and careen about the streets are becoming a major peeve in Makiki.

“People are operating like there’s no law,” said Sam Mitchell, a member of the Makiki/Lower Punchbowl board.

Rising crime is the biggest concern in the Ala Moana area, said Ryan Tam, chairman of the Ala Moana board. That’s true in Waikiki as well, in addition to homelessness.

“Aggressive, drug-induced, violent, screaming, nudity,” recounted Jeff Merz of the Waikiki neighborhood board, adding that this kind of behavior on the streets is souring people on visiting Hawaii’s premiere tourist destination.

May Mizuno, who chairs the Kalihi Valley neighborhood board, where the parking shortage has caused a crisis, said she just wants to feel that she is being heard.

“I’m hoping they will listen to the community, rather than just being a politician,” she said.

Many asked for a higher level of morality from elected officials.

“What do we want out of the city?” asked Rich Turbin, who has served on the Waialae-Kahala board for 41 years. “Honest people who don’t take bribes and don’t get indicted.”

Steven Melendrez, former chair of the Mililani Mauka board, said people crave ethical leaders who respond to their concerns.

“They really want honest government,” he said. “They want the people in office to speak for the people.”

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