The Honolulu Planning Commission, long criticized as an insider-ish clique dominated by construction interests, could get something of a makeover soon, if voters approve a charter amendment that would change the mix of the nine-member board.
The city planning commission is now entirely made up of people from the real estate and construction industry or related unions. Over the years, their perceived pro-development mentality has stirred a lot of controversy, including, most recently, the debate over the reappointment of Pane Meatoga III, a long-time construction union official, to the commission.
The planning commission’s job is to advise the mayor, the City Council and the Department of Planning and Permitting director on land-use questions. It reviews amendments to the general plan and zoning ordinances, and examines and holds hearings on large development projects. The commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor, vote on these projects and transmit their findings to city officials to aid in their deliberations.
“It’s one of our most powerful commissions, and makes a lot of difficult decisions, important ones for the city,” said council member Andria Tupola, chair of the executive matters and legal affairs committee, at a council hearing in October that discussed the charter amendment. In an earlier hearing, held in September, she had noted the commission was “definitely controversial, as to how the people are chosen.”
Charter Question #2, as it’s called on mail-in ballots that will start landing in Honolulu mailboxes in the middle of this month, asks voters to consider amending the city charter to require the commission to include four members with specialized skills, including somebody knowledgeable about Native Hawaiian traditional practices or Hawaiian law and land usage and an expert on climate change, sea level rise or the environment.
The measure, which was introduced to the City Council in July 2021 and adopted in April 2022, adds that at least one of the nine members should have experience in land-use planning and another should be knowledgeable about land development and construction. These two specifications are not really a change because the board already has a large contingent of developers and planners.
The planning commission currently consists of an architect, a real estate development director, an urban planner who does work in the private and public sectors, an engineer, a construction manager, three construction union officials and a real estate attorney whose term recently expired, according to city staff and confirmation documents.
Council member Esther Kiaaina, vice chair of the city’s zoning and planning committee, drafted the language for the portion of the measure calling for an expert on Hawaiian culture and land use, while the wording for the three other new requirements came from council member Brandon Elefante, who chairs the committee, Kiaaina said.
Elefante introduced the resolution to “broaden the scope and diversity” of Planning Commission members, he said last week in an email, noting that he hoped adding the perspective of people with expertise in these areas would assist the city and council in decision-making.
Voters will be able to voice their opinions in the Nov. 8 general election. Ballots will be mailed in mid-October.
Charter amendments are often little more than afterthoughts for voters struggling to make it through a lengthy list of names of people to pick for elected office. But they are serious business as they make fundamental changes to the city’s charter.
There are usually only a handful of them to consider. During an election year, council members can propose charter amendments to be added to the ballot, subject to three hearings and a supermajority vote of at least six yes votes from council members.
This year Honolulu has four charter amendment issues on the ballot involving changes to the planning commission, the housing fund, Resolution 21-192, and the use of city funds, Resolution 22-79.
A fourth measure, Resolution 22-99, would create an office of council services providing charter-authorized attorney services to the council, to help them draft legislation, to conduct legal research and to represent them in conflicts where council members believe their interests may not be fully served by the city’s corporation counsel.
At the September 2021 committee hearing, Tupola called the planning commission charter amendment proposal a step in the right direction.
Community advocate Choon James, on the other hand, said that while the charter amendment may be helpful if enacted, “it’s not good enough” to remedy the problem. She believes that boards and commissions in Honolulu serve as little more than “rubber stamps chosen by the mayor and planning staffs.”
Ordinary citizens need to play a bigger role, she said.
“Regular people who know what’s going on need a place at the table” to better represent the interests of city residents, she said.
Last year, Dean Uchida, former DPP director, testified against the proposed charter amendment, saying it was already hard to find volunteers willing to serve on city commissions without compensation.
“It’s difficult to get qualified candidates to serve on the planning commission as it is, and when you put these requirements on, that individual members have to have this type of experience, it makes it all the more difficult to find qualified people,” said Uchida, who has since resigned.
Elefante agreed it can be hard to find people to serve on boards and commissions but said that he believed “the general public” hopes the commission will include candidates who have “a diverse set of experience.”
A vote over Meatoga’s reconfirmation, meanwhile, is set for Wednesday. It has attracted attention. While Meatoga has won plaudits from people in the development industry for his collegiality and others who praised his record of community service in Laie, some said his renomination was another example of the ways the construction industry works its will on the political process in Honolulu.
“We need independent people in the planning department, and not people that will be paid by the construction industry to do their bidding,” wrote Laura Gray in testimony to the council in opposition to Meatoga’s renomination.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Civil Beat. A long-time reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” “Isabella the Warrior Queen” and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. You can reach her by email at email@example.com.