The unscripted public events are attracting big crowds across Oahu and more are planned.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, more than two years into his tenure and running for reelection, is taking his show on the road.

In the past three months, he and his administration have criss-crossed Oahu, speaking at 10 unscripted evening town halls from Waianae to Kaneohe and Waialua to Aina Haina.

Residents have been invited to come to the microphone to pose questions to him in person, and more than 280 people have taken the mayor up on the offer, raising concerns about a wide range of issues from crime to parks, to homelessness, to rising property assessments and to the availability of pickleball courts and indoor roller skating arenas.

Most of the gatherings have attracted about 200 people each, sometimes crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in small rooms to participate. More than 1,800 people total have attended.

Members of the public came to listen and share their ideas with Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi and his Cabinet at a town hall meeting held in the cafeteria of the David Kalakaua Middle School. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The 11th and last in the series of events will come on Thursday at Pearl Harbor Elementary School. Blangiardi expects to launch another series of similar talks in about six months.

There is no prescreening of questions, an approach that now seems fresh in a world where most politicians favor preselected queries to which they can respond with rehearsed answers. Blangiardi instead is pleasant but candid and sometimes even blunt.

The approach is being met with the approval of many attendees, even when the mayor gives them an answer they would prefer not to hear.

“I was kind of surprised and impressed,” said Audrey Smith of Moiliili, after watching the mayor hold the stage at the Ala Wai Golf Course on May 11. “He responded to questions, and his staff with knowledge said more.”

East Oahu resident Linda Kea, another participant at the Ala Wai town hall, said she had never seen anything like it.

“I’ve been here my whole life and I never really recall a town hall by a mayor,” she said. “It’s really good. They are coming out to the community and talking about the issues we see every day.”

The town halls share the same simple format. Blangiardi and the heads of his departments show up at the venues, mostly at public school cafeterias. The crowd files in. The mayor greets the audience and someone leads a prayer. The department heads, sitting behind the mayor, introduce themselves and tell residents what their departments are responsible for handling.

Ernie Lau, manager and chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, who has pressed hard for a cleanup at Red Hill and publicly joined clean-water advocates for a protest outside the Hawaii Health Department, always attracts a big cheer.

Then Blangiardi moves to the front and opens the floor, urging attendees to speak up on issues and problems and address city officials.

He also urges them to keep their comments crisp and to the point.

“I’m going to be kind and nice, but we’re not into long speeches at the microphone,” he warned the crowd at King David Kalakaua Middle School in Kalihi on May 18.

“I’m here tonight to tell you the truth,” he told participants in Waialua on May 4.

On March 21, at Ewa Makai Middle School, a retired social worker pressed for details on why the Makakilo Drive extension has never been completed. Blangiardi turned the question over to managing director Mike Formby, former chief of the city’s department of transportation services, and its current head Roger Morton, who both told the questioner that the project involved complicated engineering challenges and would cost more than $60 million.

“There is not an unlimited amount of money,” Morton told him, but then suggested ways the project could be pushed forward.

Chief Joe Logan talked about crime at one of the mayor’s town hall meetings in Kalihi. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

At Laie Elementary School on April 20, community advocate Dotty Kelly-Paddock pressed the mayor for his assistance in securing federal funding for an area disaster shelter, a vitally needed project that is likely to cost more than $20 million. The mayor promised he would work with her in “trying to get the most help we can.”

At other points, the requests included trimming back overgrown trees, fixing damaged stop signs or replacing broken light bulbs.

In an interview, Blangiardi credited Formby for coming up with the idea for the town hall format amid a broader discussion about how best to counter the growing public cynicism about government officials.

“The genesis of this comes from the challenge we recognize that we need to rebuild trust in local city government, build hope in our community in this post-Covid environment,” he said. “We felt that going out there, extending ourselves, getting out face-to-face, embracing the community, would manifest that.”

He decided to require his entire Cabinet to travel in person to attend each town hall, thinking that it would be a learning experience for them to hear about problems elsewhere in the city administration.

“The truth of the matter is that it is also a team-building exercise,” he said. “It is the kind of collaboration we need and we expect in the daily operations of the city, not having people operate in silos. I want them sensitized, not just in their domain and in their department, to gain a general awareness on a first-hand basis of issues that matter.”

He said that he expects the department heads to follow up with questioners, so that “nobody is left hanging.”

He pushes department heads to respond on the spot, which they do, sometimes already aware of the problem or issue, and sometimes clearly blindsided by something new.

After hearing from roller skating enthusiasts about the shuttered inline skating rink at Kaomaaiku Neighborhood Park at the town hall in Mililani on April 5, city officials committed to make the necessary repairs and reopen the facility. Within five weeks, it had been refurbished and was back in use.

“The city reopened that hockey rink because of that town hall,” said Danielle Bass, chair of the Mililani-Waipio-Melemanu Neighborhood Board. “I was very impressed with the presence of the mayor’s entire Cabinet and their availability to answer community questions and address issues, with quick action and results-oriented solutions.”

Most of the interactions with the mayor are cordial, but some are tense on both sides.

At a town hall at Kalani High School in East Honolulu on April 13, Waimanalo resident Mialisa Otis closely questioned Blangiardi about his support for Bill 19 that would standardize access to Oahu’s beaches by commercial enterprises. She reminded him that in April 2022 he signed Bill 38, which banned commercial activity from Waimanalo to Makapuu.

Blangiardi said that he had always intended to establish an island-wide system, a point he made in a recorded statement at the time he signed Bill 38 into law. He said giving some places special protection isn’t fair to other communities and that some protections should be extended to all.

Otis pressed for a commitment from the mayor that he would continue to support a ban on commercial activity at Waimanalo.

“No,” he said. “No.”

Otis responded that he should expect to see Waimanalo residents react strongly if commercial activity returned to the beaches.

“I believe in the council, and we will see how this plays out,” she said. “If it doesn’t play out, good luck to you. We will be knocking on your door.”

In Kaneohe, Blangiardi told a contingent of supporters of Haiku Stairs, a spectacular World War II-era mountain path, that he had initially hoped to save the trail but had decided that it needed to be removed. Pressed for another answer he insisted that was the conclusion he had reached after carefully considering the difficulties in making it safe for users and acceptable to nearby homeowners.

Many people gather to shake the mayor’s hand at the end of the evenings and to share one or two last thoughts before they depart for home. He usually stays until the last of them leaves the building.

Civil Beat reporters Ben Angarone and Jack Truesdale contributed to this report.

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