Commission members say the pay for elected officials should reflect the jobs they do.

The Honolulu Salary Commission says City Council members need to be paid on par with other city officials, including department heads and even the council’s own staff who make considerably more.

In recent interviews, some members of the commission said besides trying to make the salaries equitable, they wanted to beef up pay to encourage more highly qualified candidates to run for office.

The commission has approved 64% raises for most council members, a controversial proposal that will come before the council on Wednesday as part of finalizing the city’s budget for the coming year. Unless the council explicitly rejects the raise and money to cover the pay increases is included in the budget, the higher salaries will automatically kick in July 1.

Raises for other city officials up for review were set at 12.5%, based on what the state’s Bargaining Unit 13 received over the past few years. The commission also said it took into account testimony from Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration that some high-ranking civil servants make more than appointed department leaders. This inequity could dissuade people from stepping into more senior roles, they said.

A council pay raise of 64% is a harder pill to swallow, they acknowledged, but argue it’s on par with what the role actually entails.

When comparing the salaries of other city employees, “it didn’t match up for the council,” Salary Commission chair Malia Espinda said in a phone interview.

Per the Salary Commission’s recommendation, the Honolulu City Council will get a 64% pay raise July 1. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

She emphasized the city charter’s requirement that the commission preserve “a sensible relationship with the salaries of other city employees.”

Council members currently make $68,904 while the chair makes $76,968. Council members pay would increase to about $113,000 and the chair’s to about $123,000.

According to the commission’s resolution, more than three-quarters of council staff make higher salaries than council members, and almost half make more than the council chair.

Not to mention the council’s executive branch counterparts. Department heads’ current salaries of $166,560 would jump to $187,488 under the commission’s resolution.

“It’s a coequal branch of government,” said commission member Rebecca Soon, arguing that a pay gap that large shouldn’t exist between executive and legislative positions.

Part of the challenge on council salaries was determining what role in the city’s executive branch has a comparable level of responsibility, she said. The Salary Commission surveyed members to determine the nature and scope of their duties.

Department director and deputy director levels were considered. But those salaries would’ve felt too drastic an increase for council members to receive, said Soon.

They decided to align the council member pay with roughly what the starting salary of a division chief would be. Espinda emphasized that this represents the lowest of the three options they were considering.

Pointing to the city’s 35% job vacancy rate, commissioners also said that they hope these increased council salaries would attract more high quality candidates for office.

Soon pointed to San Diego as an example of this occurring, where voters approved a ballot measure in 2018 to double council salaries from $75,000 to $150,000 and the San Diego Union-Tribune reported an increase in viable candidates.

“We should be investing in a good quality of employees, and really encouraging and supporting our public sector,” she said.

Some members of the public have suggested that a better approach might have been gradually raising the pay over a few years, but commission members rejected that since their jurisdiction only covers one year at a time.

The Honolulu Salary Commission has been having the same conversations regarding council pay and full-time versus part-time status since its first meeting almost 40 years ago. 

“Differences in opinion were apparent in the testimony of those elected officials, one contending that $17,500 was adequate since the position as he viewed it is only ‘part time’. Other testimony was that the work was ‘full time,’” the commission wrote in its first recommendation in 1985, when the commission bumped council salaries up by 50%.

This year, council member Esther Kiaaina said she supports the proposed salary increase after members of the public expressed their frustration with council members staying silent on the matter.

But council members Augie Tulba and Andria Tupola introduced two resolutions rejecting the proposed salary increases.

Those resolutions would need approval from at least three-quarters of the council, an unlikely prospect at this point since it’s too late to add the resolutions to Wednesday's agenda.

'The Opportunity To Serve'

Who are these people determining pay for city officials?

They're volunteers with staggered five-year appointments, tasked with meeting in the beginning of each year and and submitting a report by May 1.

Of its six members, the three mayoral appointees come from the human resources field, while the other three, who are council appointees, come from law and governmental relations. The last slot is supposed to be a mayoral appointment with council approval, but is currently vacant since the mayor's choice requested to be dropped from consideration in March.

Current mayoral appointees include Sarah Guay, Carolee Kubo and Lila Tom. 

Guay leads Hawaii Employers Council, a nonprofit formed in 1943 to organize employers as a bloc and negotiate with the era’s rapidly-growing unions.

It wasn’t a hard decision for her when approached by people from the mayor's office.

“I think the opportunity to serve was important to me,” she said. “That’s something I feel really strongly about – and to understand the process.”  

Kubo and Tom both have experience with the city’s Department of Human resources, where Kubo was the director under previous mayor Kirk Caldwell and Tom was division chief for classification and pay. 

Kubo receives a pension of between $25,000 and $49,999 from Hawaii Government Employees Association, according to her financial disclosure from 2016. She's a city-level campaign donor, including $1,000 to council chair Tommy Waters and more for her old boss Kirk Caldwell. She was the lone vote against the proposed salary increases among commission members.

Council appointees include Espinda, Soon and David Hayakawa.

Espinda is this year's chair and was appointed to the commission in 2020. Her resume lists experience in the governmental relations field and years of helping coordinate legislation state departments.

The spirit of volunteering appealed to her, so when she was asked if she'd consider joining the commission, she "felt honored."

Hayakawa was appointed in 2021. A criminal defense attorney, he's donated over the years to several political campaigns, including $750 to Waters’ nail-biting 2018 run that ended in a 2019 runoff and his eventual victory

Soon, president of market research company Ward Research and owner of its parent company the Meli Group, joined the commission in January as the most recent council appointee. 

She’s a frequent campaign donor, having contributed more than $34,000 to candidates over the past five years, including $1,100 to Kiaaina, almost $2,100 to council member Tyler Dos Santos-Tam and more than $3,100 to council member Matt Weyer.

Her hearing was markedly different from that of previous council appointees to the commission. 

Honolulu City Council member Augie Tulba listens to public testimony on a large video screen at Honolulu Hale.
Though he joined his colleagues in lamenting their roles' long hours and relatively low pay, Honolulu City Council member Augie Tulba is one of two council members along with Andria Tupola to introduce resolutions that rejected the Salary Commission's pay raise. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Soon’s hearing involved statements from six of nine council members, with most of them speaking to the commitment and long hours required for their role on council.

Council members have so far rejected the Salary Commission’s recommendations only three times: in 2002, 2004, and 2012.

The system doesn’t have to be this way. In Seattle, where nine council members have jurisdiction over a population comparable to Honolulu county's, salaries set by ordinance about a decade ago are now tied to the cost of living. In Maui County, council members don’t have the option to reject the recommendations of their Salary Commission. 

Waters has argued that council members deserve higher pay, but that Oahu's setup means it's a politically bad look to approve these increases.

It’s a point that Hayakawa touched on during the commission’s discussion in March. 

“We’re going to have to make a jump one year or another,” he said, “and that is going to be an unpopular jump.”

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