Prior to March 2020, the Kahaluu neighborhood board met at the same spot almost every month for over 40 years.

Kualoa-Heeia Ecumenical Youth Project – or KEY Project – was happy to host them in its space; its former executive director John Reppun even serves as a neighborhood board member to this day.

“It’s been a really ideal site,” said Reppun.

After the pandemic struck, monthly board meetings around the city stopped. Virtual meetings gradually blossomed as boards shifted their operations online.

Now – more than half a year after Covid restrictions were lifted – a split has emerged. While about half of Honolulu’s neighborhood boards are back to their old meeting spots, the other half are still without permanent homes.

John Reppun, a bearded man in jeans and slippers, stands in front of KEY project in Windward Oahu.
John Reppun is a member of the Kahaluu neighborhood board and former executive director of KEY Project, which used to host the board. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Kahaluu is one of these locations, the holdup in its return apparently a disagreement between the city and KEY Project in their contract’s liability wording.

Other boards face similar challenges, owing to the city’s increased scrutiny of contracts during renegotiations with the venues after a pandemic-spurred hiatus. And while people think that it’s a net benefit to be able to join virtually, they also feel that something is lost civically when meetings are held almost solely online.  

Contract Negotiations

Neighborhood boards lack the power to pass laws or effect change on their own, serving instead as a monthly opportunity for residents to communicate with public officials and discuss neighborhood matters.

Meetings often get heated and jam-packed when big issues arise. They also are long – often close to three hours – and not always the most thrilling way to spend a weeknight. Volunteer board members join because they see it as an avenue to get involved and improve their neighborhoods.

“This is where literally one person can have an impact,” said Robert Armstrong, a member of Downtown-Chinatown’s board. 

Some boards have calm reputations; Downtown-Chinatown is not one of them.

“Our board is fairly cantankerous, and that’s a nice word for it,” said Armstrong. 

Members talk over one another and acknowledge that factions exist. One member filed two temporary restraining orders against Armstrong this summer. 

However, everybody agrees the board needs to find an in-person meeting spot, a task complicated after the Neighborhood Commission Office determined its past use of facilities provided for free by Hawaii Pacific University posed a conflict of interest.

925 Dillingham Boulevard.
The Neighborhood Commission Office, which oversees the Neighborhood Board program, is headquartered at Kapalama Hale. Some neighborhood boards also meet there. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The board last met at HPU in August 2021, switching then to mostly online meetings except for a brief period at the Mission Memorial building. As of this month, the choices for a new meeting spot have been narrowed to Honolulu Hale, the Capitol and Keelikolani Intermediate School.

Because neighborhood boards aren’t legal entities, contracts and negotiations with each venue go through the city. In the past these contracts were typically just renewed each year, but the pandemic pause and the subsequent administration of Mayor Rick Blangiardi prompted new scrutiny, said Lloyd Yonenaka, executive director of the Neighborhood Commission Office.

Contracts come from the venues themselves, with input and negotiation from the city. And the new administration has “cracked down” on potential liabilities being placed on them, said Dylan Buck, a neighborhood assistant with the NCO, which oversees the Neighborhood Board program.

Kapalama Hale

As of November, 16 out of 33 boards’ agendas listed Kapalama Hale, the NCO’s headquarters, as their in-person meeting locations.

A few boards have returned to public schools, staring with the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board, which resumed meetings in Hahaione Elementary School at the end of April.

Board Chair Roberta Mayer said it was a relief after two years of live video meetings that were appreciated for providing a forum but were far from ideal.

“It’s not as intimate,” she said, adding the format also suffers from jumpy screens and fuzzy sound quality. 

And when it rains, the “internet is shot,” said Kimeona Kane, chair of the Waimanalo neighborhood board. Waimanalo’s board met at Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate School before the pandemic, but Kane said he’s had a hard time getting in touch with the new principal there to discuss returning.

Even if all the technical components are working, some users are just less savvy than others at using them.

A new state law took effect this year requiring boards subject to the open meetings law – which includes neighborhood boards – to provide at least one in-person location when virtual meetings are held, in theory to combat the digital divide between those with good internet access and those without.

In practice, NCO-provided space at Kapalama Hale is needed to accommodate the 16 boards without their own locations.

Kapalama Hale is spacious and mostly vacant when board meetings take place in the evenings. Tables and chairs face forward in a classroom-style setup. They also point toward a giant television screen that displays virtual meeting participants.

The NCO staffs the room with a neighborhood assistant for support — even if nobody from the community actually shows up in-person.

“As of yet, I don’t think we’ve had anyone take up that option,” said Chair Kaanoi Walk of Kahaluu’s board, situated about a 30 minute drive from Kapalama Hale. 

Even residents from Downtown-Chinatown – less than a mile away – rarely make the journey to Kapalama Hale.

“I’ve seen a total of fewer than five or six guests from the community,” said Kevin Lye, a member of that board and its former chair. 

Desks face a large TV screen of Webex participants. One person sits there, studying the papers in front of him. In the background, a person controls the computer.
The NCO provides space at Kapalama Hale to meet in person, but few community members take advantage of it. At Makiki-Tantalus’s October meeting, the vast majority joined via Webex. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

The situation has its upsides.

Civil Beat interviewed members representing over a dozen neighborhood boards, and all said they’re thankful for the option to tune in virtually, which is convenient for both elected officials and ordinary residents. 

Lori Yamada, chair of the Kaimuki Neighborhood Board, said that she likes virtual meetings. It’s easier to see presenters when each person has their own camera and microphone, she said, not to mention easier to control in case somebody talks past their allotted time.

Kaimuki’s board had been meeting in a church but couldn’t anymore “because of some language in the contracts” – something related to liability – she said.

These contract woes hit Kahaluu in July, when the board was told that the Neighborhood Commission Office wouldn’t move forward in its renegotiations with the venue. 

The next month, the board passed a unanimous resolution that it is “strongly opposed to relocating KNB meetings away from KEY Project.” They’re still hopeful an agreement will eventually be reached.

Neighborhood Hubs

With all the hassle, the NCO started considering a new approach to neighborhood boards: neighborhood “hubs,” which could host multiple neighborhoods’ monthly board meetings.

This would be an alternative to outfitting a different location with hybrid-ready technology for each of Honolulu’s neighborhood boards, which Yonenaka said “would just be impossible.”

The thinking is that hubs can be an efficient way to invest resources into a much smaller number of locations. 

One example could be the Ala Wai Clubhouse, said Yonenaka. Diamond Head’s board already uses it, and so could Waikiki, and Kaimuki, and Palolo – the city’s planning commission could even use it as a sort of satellite location to hear residents’ testimonies, he said.

Yonenaka said the idea is still in early stages. 

Waikiki Beach Hotels with Ala Wai Golf Course Canal aerial 0401.
The Ala Wai Golf Course Clubhouse is just across the canal from Waikiki, and could serve as a shared meeting place for multiple nearby neighborhood boards. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Buck’s job as neighborhood assistant is basically to be a liaison for the NCO and help coordinate meetings from Kapalama Hale. His suggestion, which was to continue using Kapalama Hale as a hub, came during the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board’s conversation in October about finding a new in-person location. 

“Instead of 33 different locations, 33 different contracts, 33 different potential issues, we want to have hubs that serve four to five boards that we can guarantee will work with these hybrid meetings,” Buck said.

Board members could also send in their own list of suggestions, said Buck, as long as they understood that the NCO would make the final decision about where is most feasible – which may or may not be within the boundaries of their neighborhood. 

Armstrong and his fellow board members bristled. When the board met at HPU, many community members took advantage of the easy walk and participation would likely decrease if the meetings were held outside the neighborhood.

“We’re in a walking neighborhood, that’s why many of us live in Downtown-Chinatown,” he said.

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