UPDATES: Many constituents feel that the increases are a “slap in the face,” and they want more accountability.

With the Salary Commission’s proposed pay increases set to kick in with the new fiscal year on July 1, the Kaimuki Neighborhood Board is rallying other boards to pressure Honolulu City Council members into holding a vote on the measure.

Council members are set to receive a controversial 64% boost to their pay pending no further action.

Many constituents are unhappy — both at the raise and at council members’ silence.

“All we’re asking is for the council to schedule a public hearing and a vote,” said Kaimuki Neighborhood Board Chair Lori Yamada.

Newly sworn in Honolulu city council members Val Okimoto and Tyler Dos Santos-Tam
Council members Esther Kiaaina, left, Val Okimoto and Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, right, have so far not publicly said where they stand on the proposed pay increases, preferring instead to discuss the job’s sometimes intense hours and workload. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Yamada put together model language for a resolution that her board could approve, and on Wednesday, she and Palolo neighborhood board chair Josh Frost emailed the language to their counterparts around Oahu and asked that they pass similar resolutions.

Meanwhile, some council members are avoiding giving a straight answer about where they stand on the issue.

The proposed increases for top city officials range from $209,856 for the mayor to $177,888 for the Royal Hawaiian Band director. Those raises represent an approximately 12% increase.

But the proposed 64% increase for council members – which would bring their salaries from $68,904 up to $113,304 and would bring the council chair’s salary from $76,968 up to $123,288 – has drawn the attention of many constituents.

And while it’s the issue that constituents seem most interested in discussing, it’s also what council members seem least interested in discussing. 

Council Chair Tommy Waters has said he doesn’t plan to schedule a hearing on the raises, arguing that council members shouldn’t have to vote on their own salaries and that residents have already made their thoughts known. 

But many Honolulu residents aren’t satisfied with that answer, saying they want their elected officials on the record either supporting or opposing the increase. 

‘There’s No Real Winning Position’

If nothing changes, the increase will kick in with the new fiscal year on July 1. But it can be stopped if three quarters of the council – at least seven members – vote to reject it.

Council members Augie Tulba and Andria Tupola introduced two resolutions against the proposed salaries to do just that, but council members haven’t been able to vote on them because Waters hasn’t scheduled their resolutions for a hearing, nor have a majority of members brought it to the floor.

Asked where they stand, council members touch on the same points that Waters does – that it’s a full-time job, that Hawaii is an expensive place to live, that the wage has been stagnant for 19 of the past 33 years – but stop before explicitly declaring their support. 

“There’s no real winning position,” council member Tyler Dos Santos-Tam said, emphasizing that the job is a full-time commitment before declining to comment on the proposed wage increase. 


Council member Esther Kiaaina also talked at length about the job’s busy schedule, both during a recent phone interview and in written testimony that she, Tupola, Say and Waters submitted to the Salary Commission.

“The better question, I think, is whether the salary being recommended is commensurate, and adequate, for the work that we perform,” Kiaaina said over the phone, noting her work experience at multiple levels of government.

So does that mean she supports the proposed increase?

“While I’m certainly not an expert on salaries, it sounds like what the Salary Commission did to come up with the recommendations were logical,” she said.

Waters has been vocal about his support for the increase. Council member Calvin Say has been less vocal, but expressed his support in an emailed statement.

“I have shared that I am in support of a salary increase, and, as the Council has a 2-term limit, I believe this increase will help to make the position more viable for future candidates,” he wrote. “I would not want to put new members in the situation of voting on bringing their own salaries up to a level equitable to their administrative counterparts, as we are facing now.”

At a recent town hall, council member Val Okimoto was questioned by a couple residents about the proposed increases and whether she feels it’s a full-time job. Her tone was friendly and understanding despite ultimately claiming that she couldn’t discuss a pending resolution.

Like other council members, however, Okimoto did broadly discuss her struggle to make ends meet while working a time-intensive job as a single mother.

“To survive though, if you’ve seen the salary that we have, there is some of us that have to work on the side. And it’s not ideal,” she said at the town hall.

In an emailed statement, council member Matt Weyer declined to state his position on the pay raises, saying that kind of dialogue is supposed to happen through public hearings, not the media.

“I invite anyone in our community to contact me at anytime, but I also will not attempt to influence my colleagues to vote like me on a matter we have yet to discuss as a body in accordance with sunshine law.  I have full trust that each of them, irrespective of their position on the pay increase, is committed to serving their community,” wrote Weyer.

In a phone call, he added that he expects the topic will come up and be discussed at public hearings for the two new measures that would prohibit council members from holding outside jobs. Those measures were introduced by Kiaaina and Waters on Thursday.

Okimoto and council member Radiant Cordero did not return phone calls asking for further comment. 

To craft the potential neighborhood board resolution, which would require a majority vote to pass, Yamada said that she reached out to Sen. Les Ihara, who provided her with legal research and helped with the resolution’s wording. 

She believes that the council’s current track has been a somewhat obscured process.

Honolulu City Council member Tommy Waters gestures during a press conference held at HPD Waikiki on the announcement of banners.
Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters doesn’t believe that council members should have to vote on their own salaries, putting him at odds with many Honolulu residents. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

In the neighborhood board model language, she included a line saying “we believe that independent of whether members agree or disagree on the Council pay issue, accountability is of utmost importance to civic life and that includes a public hearing and vote on Resolution 23-82,” referring to Tupola and Tulba’s resolution.

Ihara declined to comment on the resolution’s substance, essentially saying he just wanted to help a constituent with the technical elements of her grassroots effort.

Some chairs said they hadn’t yet seen this email, but they disagreed with the council’s current track for letting the raises take effect.

Pearl City Neighborhood Board Chair Larry Veray said he has nothing against Waters and the rest of the council, but the process is a bad look. 

Veray also said the 64% increase is a “slap in the face to a lot of residents that aren’t getting pay raises and are just barely making it by.”

He thinks the pay increase would be more palatable if it were to gradually increase over a multiyear period.

While neighborhood boards are advisory – meaning they lack the power to actually effect change on their own – initiatives started at the board level have turned into larger-scale movements in the past. 

One recent example in 2019 saw seven neighborhood boards oppose the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood plan for the Ala Wai canal, which the boards argued put their communities more at risk in favor of protecting Waikiki

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers eventually scrapped that particular plan, citing engineering concerns.

Comparing With Other Cities

The Salary Commission’s explanation included in its proposal cites Honolulu’s high cost of living as well as the city’s difficult time attracting employees. 

Even most legislative staff members earn more money than the council members they support, according to the Salary Commission’s resolution.

And compared to other cities, Honolulu pays its council members peanuts.

This is especially true when looking at similarly high cost of living cities like New York and Seattle, where council members are respectively paid $148,500 and $136,905.

In Boston, councilors’ current wage of $103,500 is set to gradually increase to $125,000 by 2026, and in Sacramento, the Compensation Commission recently gave council members a raise from $99,317 to $102,793

In Philadelphia, which has a relatively lower cost of living, council members receive annual salaries of $142,751.

But Honolulu’s situation is also unique compared to these other cities. Here, council members’ jobs are often understood to be technically part time, despite what council members have said they’ve discovered after actually starting the job. 

The Salary Commission contends that nowhere in the city charter does it specify whether the job is a full-time post versus part time, and council members describe a round-the-clock work schedule.

On Thursday, Waters and Kiaaina introduced two measures that would prohibit council members from performing other jobs and receiving outside pay

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