Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 General Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Tommy Waters, candidate for Honolulu City Council District 4, which includes Hawaii Kai, Kuliouou, Niu Valley, Aina Haina, Wailupe, Waialae-Iki, Kalani Valley, Kahala, Wilhemina Rise, Kaimuki, Kapahulu, Diamond Head and Waikiki. The other candidate is Kaleo Nakoa.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the General Election Ballot.

Candidate for Honolulu City Council District 4

Tommy Waters
Party Nonpartisan
Age 56
Occupation Attorney
Residence Kaimuki

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

Honolulu City Council member, 2019-present; state House of Representatives, 2002-2008.

1. What is the biggest issue facing Oahu, and what would you do about it?

Too many local families are being priced out of our island home. I am the fifth of six children, and all of my siblings have left for the mainland due to the cost of living. I am scared to death at the prospect that my daughter and son will not be able to call Hawaii home due to being priced out.

A 2019 Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism study identified that Honolulu needs more than 22,000 new homes at all price points. However, there is a dire need for homes for people earning 80% AMI and below. Since I became chair of the council, we have appropriated over $250 million to purchase, build, rehabilitate and incentivize affordable housing so that we can achieve this goal.

I also want to point out that our affordable housing emergency has further exacerbated the challenge of homelessness in our community. My district, East Honolulu, saw a rise of 6% homeless population this year, according to the most recent point in time count. I’ve worked with my colleagues to appropriate $16.7 million to support vulnerable populations, including individuals struggling to maintain economic sustainability and domestic violence survivors.

2. The Honolulu rail project: What should be done?

Mayor Blangiardi has consistently said on the record that the project will be built as far as we can using existing budgeted funds. I agree with that sentiment, and also want to continue to emphasize that I oppose raising residential property tax rates to fund the construction of rail.

3. In recent years, serious problems have surfaced within the Honolulu Police Department. At the same time, there has been a significant push to beef up oversight of police and reform some practices. What would you do specifically to improve accountability of local law enforcement? Are you satisfied with the Honolulu Police Department? How about the Honolulu Police Commission?

We need to recognize the critical role that the Honolulu Police Department plays in keeping our communities safe, while also addressing some of the concerns about police oversight.

To that end, and in support of the Honolulu Police Department and the Honolulu Police Commission, I introduced four charter amendments which, among other things, addressed the qualifications for the police chief and the Police Commission, as well as the commission’s ability to adequately provide feedback to the department. I tried in these amendments, to empower the Police Commission to do what the public has been asking for: oversight. Unfortunately, these amendments did not make it this year.

I also introduced and the council subsequently passed, an audit of overtime practices for HPD. It is my hope that we can use the audit’s findings to improve the personnel practices for the department, and identify opportunities to retain skilled officers.

One of the critical findings from this audit was the sheer impact that HPD’s vacancies have on overtime. HPD has 329 uniformed police officer vacant positions. What that means is that many officers are finding themselves overworked and suffering burnout, all while costing taxpayers more money. I hope that with Chief Logan coming on board, HPD will implement these findings and recommendations.

4. Honolulu has some of the lowest property taxes in the country. Is it time to raise those rates to help meet city obligations? Tax vacant homes at a higher rate?

I do not want to raise taxes on our local families. I know too many kupuna in my district whose property values have skyrocketed and potentially risk being unable to pay their taxes should we increase residential tax rates.

I believe instead that we need to continue to support a vacant home tax. To that end, I have tried to introduce numerous versions of a bill establishing the tax category. And while I have run into opposition from the Real Property Assessment Division administrator, I will still advocate on behalf of our local families to ensure that we can meet our city obligations while supporting our local families.

5. Is Honolulu a safe place to live? What can be done to improve the quality of life on the island?

While Honolulu is a safe place to live, we need to recognize that it is becoming increasingly less safe. The council approved a $312 million budget for HPD this year, a 4% increase over the last fiscal year. Additionally, the council also appropriated $13.76 million to increase public safety and reduce crime in our communities.

But safety is about more than just crime — it’s about ensuring that our local residents have clean water and preserved natural resources. During my tenure on the council, we have successfully approved measures to preserve portions of Aina Haina and Kuliouou from sprawl development.

More recently, and in light of the Red Hill crisis, I introduced legislation that empowered the Board of Water Supply to regulate large underground fuel storage facilities. In the budget cycle, I also fought to include $29 million to ensure clean water for the residents of Oahu, and I will continue to fight for our local families to ensure that the Navy pays its fair share to address the damage done to our aquifer. There is no greater resource that we must protect at all costs than our wai.

6. Hawaii has seen a growing division when it comes to politics, development, health mandates and other issues. Protests are getting angrier. What would you do to bridge those gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences?  

Communication is the key. It is important to seek public input on all issues. I understand that it is easy to get angry, but ultimately we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable. But I’ve always believed that if there are five issues that we have to discuss and you disagree with me on four of them, let’s find out how we can work together to solve the one issue we agree upon.

Listening is so important in all of these issues. Regardless of your stance on an issue, I want to hear you and I often find that I can learn from these conversations. Even if we walk away with the same positions, I believe we are all better for having had the conversation. It is for this reason that as chair, the council has updated our website, making it easier for people to participate in council hearings. We now allow for remote testimony and have begun the Hale Hookele program to teach people how to participate in government.

7. Like the state, the City and County has had its share of corruption cases – from the police department and prosecutor’s office to the mayor’s office and the planning department. What would you do to restore public confidence in our public officials? What if anything needs to change about how the City Council operates?

I have, and continue to have a zero-tolerance policy for the appearance of impropriety. In 2019, I introduced and the voters subsequently passed in 2020, a charter amendment that sought to make the Honolulu Ethics Commission’s budget more independent from the influence of the city administration. I will continue to advocate for the Ethics Commission as they need more investigators and attorneys.

I will also advocate to increase ethics training for city employees, and have personally worked to ensure that we have additional background check processes for hiring employees at the council.

8. Homelessness has been an issue for decades yet we don’t seem to be making much progress. What new ideas would you suggest to control this ongoing problem?

It’s important to recognize that the council stands poised to take action. In the fiscal year 2022 and fiscal year 2023 budgets that I’ve overseen as chair, we’ve allocated one of the largest dedications toward funding affordable housing in our city’s history — over $260 million.

The city should seek to acquire properties that have been left vacant from the pandemic’s impacts, and seek to enter into development agreements with affordable housing developers provided that they increase housing stock at 30% AMI or below. We continue to see homelessness as a critical issue impacting our community because most housing projects fail to be affordable to our most vulnerable, but the city must make it a dedicated effort to subsidize and provide housing at that level.

9. No one wants the island’s landfill in its backyard. Should it stay on the West Side and Waimanalo Gulch be expanded? Or are there other solutions? 

Waimanalo Gulch currently takes the ash from H-Power. It is nowhere near capacity. We need to find a better place for PVT to recycle construction waste, and of course, recycle as much as possible.

I will also be evaluating the final report prepared by the Landfill Advisory Committee and work with Mayor Blangiardi to identify workable solutions.

10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Oahu. Be innovative, but be specific.

The housing crisis, already a challenge facing our community prior to the pandemic, was further exacerbated and is an emergency at the top of every local’s mind. During my time at the council, I’ve identified that the city actually owns the land under a large number of our schools in the urban core of Honolulu. My proposal then, would be to provide the allowable regulatory uses at these campuses for the development of housing as an accessory use, subject to the following conditions:

— That the parcels be within the Primary Urban Center, to avoid sprawl development outside of the urban core.

— These parcels offer priority housing in three tranches: 1) to teachers that work in the area earning below 80% AMI; 2) to individuals that are employed in that geographic zip code earning below 80% AMI; and 3) to individuals that are earning below 80% AMI.

– Place a Hawaii state residency requirement to ensure that we are addressing, as a priority, our need among local families.

Ultimately, this proposal would provide much needed housing, and schools continue to be a source of large public owned parcels which can be utilized to address this emergency.

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