About the Author

Patti Epler

Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at patti@civilbeat.org or call her at 808-377-0561.

The Honolulu City Council chair says he doesn’t plan to let council members vote on the substantial raises put forward by the salary commission.

Tommy Waters is digging in his political heels.

No more hearings on pay raises proposed by the Honolulu Salary Commission, the Honolulu City Council chair says. He doesn’t intend to schedule hearings on proposals by two dissident council members to reject the raises and he doesn’t plan to allow — or force — council members to vote on the issue.

The public has had plenty of opportunity to weigh in, he says.

And it’s not like he doesn’t hear the yowls of outrage emanating from the populace who think that City Council members do not deserve a whopping 64% raise, a hike that would take them from about $70,000 a year to about $113,000 a year.

He just doesn’t agree.

He believes elected officials, including council members, should not have to vote on their own salaries, often a politically untenable position.

He wants the council — and the public — to accept that governing a city the size of Honolulu is a full-time job. And the people doing the governing need to be paid a full-time, professional wage.

“If you’re working half time, you’re working half ass,” Waters said in an interview last week. “I want council members to eat, sleep and wake up thinking about this job.”

“I really want to get good council members to devote 110% of their time to this job and this job only. And how do you do that? You’ve got to raise their pay.”

Go Tommy!

Whether you agree with him or not, it’s refreshing that someone who could get creamed in the next election for advocating for more money for himself, his council colleagues and all the city officials whose salaries are also on the table is actually speaking out. Look no further than the just-ended legislative session if you want to find wussy politicians who refuse to talk about what they’re thinking because they’re afraid of losing their seats.

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The problem for Waters is that he’s stuck between what he thinks is right — more money, full-time council — and the process, where the salary commission decides the pay raises and the City Council approves them, rejects them or does nothing and then they just take effect automatically on July 1 with the new fiscal year.

So while it’s also weirdly admirable that as council chair he is trying to protect his flock from political blowback, we really do need to hear from all nine City Council members about where they stand on this. Tommy Waters shouldn’t be the only one sticking his neck out.

We do know where two of the nine stand, three if you count Waters.

Andria Tupola and Augie Tulba have introduced measures that would reject the pay raises. One would kill them for all city officials, the other just for council members.

But it takes seven of the nine council members to essentially override the salary commission’s decision. And if Waters has his way that vote will never take place.

One opportunity for council members to speak up is coming June 7, when the City Council will have to decide if it is going to put money for the raises in the fiscal year 2024 budget.

Waters says that’s where “the big debate is going to come, because we have to get it in the budget.”

In the meantime, Waters is taking the heat. And he’s not willing to make other council members do the same.

“At this point yes, that’s absolutely correct because I don’t want council members to vote on their own raises,” he says. “I really feel it’s a huge conflict of interest for council members or legislators or any elected official to vote for their own salary.”

That may be a fair point. But we still need to hear what they have to say about it.

Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters during floor session before new council members were sworn in.
Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters is taking a strong stand on an especially tough political issue — large pay raises for City Council members. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The Long Game

Really, the more interesting question is the one Waters is raising about how the City Council works and whether it’s time to recognize that running a city of nearly 1 million people takes elected representatives who can focus on that job.

The dust-up over what they get paid may be putting the cart ahead of the horse. But the horse is definitely something to start talking about. Maybe this is the way to get that conversation going.

Waters says council staff is still figuring out the best way to go, so details are murky. But there are apparently three ways to ensure the council is a full-time body, he says.

Voters could pass a charter amendment. Or the council could get it done through an ordinance. Or the council could simply make itself full time through a change in internal rules.

Council rules are tough to enforce, Waters says, and rules as well as an ordinance can be changed by five votes. He’d rather see voters adopt it through a charter amendment, where it would take a majority of voters.

“The charter is our constitution,” Waters says, “so it carries much more weight.”

One sticky issue is whether full-time council members can still hold second jobs. Now, most members have outside employment.

Waters wants to ban outside jobs but he says he’s still working on how to make that stick.

“Do you really want your elected officials to have outside jobs?” he says. “They need to spend 150% of their time on solving our problems,” not worrying about working a second or third job to make ends meet.

Honolulu’s problems are much bigger than they were decades ago when the council was organized as a part-time institution.

Waters rattles off the many things the council needs to tackle — from how to pay for the rail operations to where to site a new landfill. These are issues that the council members need to study and be completely immersed in.

“The more time you put into it the better you are at it,” he says.

And that’s why he’s willing to draw a line in the sand. Now.

“It really is about looking into the future,” he says. “But as a leader, I am willing to take that risk.”

Who’s with him?

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About the Author

Patti Epler

Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at patti@civilbeat.org or call her at 808-377-0561.

Latest Comments (0)

And the beat goes on......... we deserve what we elect, and we have proven over and over that we are happy with OUR political office holders and the policy decisions made on a regular basis by OUR guy/gal. It is always OTHER district politicians who cause useless laws, fee hikes, allowing unwanted influence, not voting down an issue, not being present for a vote, siding with the military/developer/landowner/bank/ charity/non profit, etc etc to become law. Change is coming with the next generation of elected officials. What changes? Hold on to your wallets!!

Waterlogged · 8 months ago

I see Waters logic and appreciate his honesty and courage moving forward. Possible conflicts of interests aside, the salary commission recommends the raises, not only for the council, but for the mayor as well. If they are independent, in theory, then this is the catch up to market rates of pay and we are now getting full time members devoted only, in theory again, to city business. Comparably, you have the UH Athletic director making $325K a year, with the president, making only $50K more, so figure that disparity out? Also, if you think the pay is too high, then run for council and you too can enjoy the money and the weight of this city's problems on your shoulders.

wailani1961 · 8 months ago

Oh please. These positions are investments. They all get perks, and they all do very well during their employment and long after. Have you ever seen a former city council-member struggling financially? No one wants to begrudge them an acceptable pay increase. This increase is too much and a total insult considering the state we are all in. And this declaration of defiance is proof to me he is no longer planning to run for higher office. That’s why he has the yolo attitude.

seabass · 8 months ago

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