Amid a festive gathering to swear in new council members, the Honolulu City Council also transacted two pieces of business quickly and with unanimous approval. One action will potentially make it harder for the public to influence government actions, share their thoughts with legislators or track testimony about pending legislation.

The other changed voting procedures so that two-thirds of the entire council must participate to rezone a land category designated “important agricultural lands.”

Otherwise the inaugural event Tuesday at the flower-bedecked council chamber at Honolulu Hale was mostly ceremonial.

Honolulu City Council members were sworn in during the inauguration ceremony at Honolulu Hale. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

Top city and state government officials including Gov. Josh Green, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, Mayor Rick Blangiardi and neighbor island legislators who flew in for the event, gathered to inaugurate three new council members, Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, Matt Weyer and Val Okimoto, and one returning member, Council Chair Tommy Waters.

The mood was joyful, the Royal Hawaiian Band played, wrapping up with Hawaii Ponoi and the Star Spangled Banner.

Officials shared their concerns about property taxes, crime, the Red Hill fuel leak, housing affordability, problems at the Department of Planning and Permitting, the relocation of the city landfill and the lack of fire sprinklers in high-rise apartments and pledged to work together to tackle these challenges.

“People elected us to get things done here at the City Council,” Waters said. “We’ll be working together.”

In an interview, Blangiardi said he was optimistic about his future interactions with the new council.

“We had a very good first two years, and I have been concerned about it staying good,” but added that he believed that Okimoto, Dos Santos-Tam and Weyer would be good additions. “This will really be a seamless transition,” he said.

The council members adopted two resolutions Tuesday.

Resolution 22-295 revised city council rules, amending the sunshine law to eliminate the opportunity to offer remote testimony and making it easier for the council chair to “establish requirements for the presentation of such testimony”.

The ability to testify remotely was expanded during the pandemic, and many people have come to rely on it as a way of communicating with lawmakers. At some council hearings, as many or more people testify remotely as do so in person. Remote testimony is also prone to technical glitches and can take up a lot of extra time.

Community activists Natalie Iwasa, Choon James and Angela Young publicly registered objections — Iwasa in person and Choon and Young remotely — but no one addressed their concerns and the vote proceeded.

The amendment to city rules also eliminates a provision that required the council to specify on committee reports who had contacted them in support of or in opposition to proposed legislation including which “institutions, organizations and governmental agencies” had submitted testimony or had “offered comments” about the measure under consideration.

Following the inauguration ceremony for newly elected council members, the council entered its first official meeting at Honolulu Hale. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

The new rules will also make it easier for council members to avoid saying, precisely, whether they support or oppose a motion. Instead of having to say “aye, with reservations,” it will now be possible to say “with reservations,” or simply “reservations.” This wording puts the vote into the “aye” category without the need to say “aye,” while the city clerk is directed to register it as an “aye” vote.

Iwasa attended and asked the council in person not to eliminate remote testimony.

“Remote testimony provides another option for the public to testify on important matters impacting our daily lives,” she also wrote to the council. “Please continue to allow testifiers the option of providing testimony remotely as well as in person and in writing.”

Her opinion was echoed by Young, who said that eliminating remote testimony would make it harder for some people to participate, including the disabled. She said remote testimony should be made available “as an accommodation” to them.

Choon, who lives in Kahuku, follows civic events closely from her home and often testifies remotely, told the council that its action would chill public participation. She asked the council instead to do more to promote “transparency, open government and public participation.”

She also asked why “important agricultural lands” suddenly showed up as an issue in council rules rather than as a zoning matter.

After the event, she said she was shocked by the City Council’s actions.

“I can’t believe the City Council just adopted this without discussion,” she said.

Iwasa said it might be possible for the city to change its remote testimony policy later in the year “depending on the feedback they get once this is out.”

She added that she was worried that changing the requirements for reporting who testified on a report could make it harder to know who was backing an effort or not, although she wasn’t sure precisely what the change would mean.

The resolution was originally introduced on Dec. 28, so close to the New Year’s Eve holiday that the activists said they had been surprised to read about it at the last minute.

A second resolution, 22-294, named Waters chair once again. The council announced council member Esther Kiaaina will continue to play the role of vice-chair and Radiant Cordero will be floor leader.

Tommy Waters will chair the Council once again. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

In a separate announcement, Waters also shared the lineup of who will be managing the city’s committees. One change is that the former zoning and planning committee, which had become overwhelmed with dozens of projects and initiatives to oversee, has been divided into two — one called zoning and the other planning and the economy.

Cordero will also chair the budget committee.

Dos Santos-Tam will head two committees, transportation and executive matters and legal affairs.

Calvin Say will chair the zoning committee.

Augie Tulba will chair parks, enterprise services and culture and the arts.

Weyer will head the committee on housing, sustainability and health.

Kiaaina will chair the planning and economy committee.

Okimoto will chair the committee on public safety.

Andria Tupola will chair the committee on public infrastructure and technology.

Waters will chair the committee on executive management.

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