A bill that would prohibit council members from external employment was removed at a hearing Wednesday.

Correction: This story originally reported that salary raises for council members and city officials were passed as part of the city’s overall operating budget. That is incorrect. The measure was not voted on Wednesday. Only the legislative budget was passed after a council vote.

Significant salary increases for council members and other city officials remain on track to take effect July 1.

A last minute hearing could still derail the raises, although previous votes indicate that is unlikely.

The issue was the topic of lengthy debate Wednesday at a council meeting where some members of the public expressed anger over both the projected hefty pay bumps and what they saw as a lack of transparency in the process. The city’s 2024 fiscal year $3.4 billion operating budget was passed during the session.

Members of the Salary Commission, who made the recommendations, have said that they recognize the proposal entails a large pay increase, but argue that it would finally match council members’ all-encompassing duties. Council members salaries would increase from $68,904 to $113,000.

The total increases amount to $376,392 and will need to be made through cost savings if implemented, city officials said. There is standing language that gives the council chair the authority to move money around internally in the legislative budget if required.

Council District 1 Andria Tupola testimony councilman Tyler Dos Santos-Tam citizens city council pay raise Honolulu Council District VI Natalie Iwasa
Natalie Iwasa speaks out against the Salary Commission’s proposed pay raises during Wednesday’s marathon monthly Honolulu Council meeting. Iwasa offered suggestions on ways to restructure the commission. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Some testifiers said that while they oppose the 64% pay increase, they do appreciate the council’s work and would feel differently about a smaller amount. But the council can only vote yes or no on the Salary Commission’s recommendation rather than negotiate a specific number. 

Council members Andria Tupola and Augie Tulba tried to deflect the raises through resolutions 23-81 and 23-82, which respectively would reject either the commission’s pay recommendations for all offices or for just the council. But council chair Tommy Waters did not schedule the measures for discussion, saying that he doesn’t believe council members should have to vote on their own salaries.

During the controversy over the Salary Commission’s recommendation, Waters and council member Esther Kiaaina had introduced two measures that would effectively officiate council members as full-time workers by prohibiting outside employment and pay.

When these two measures came up Wednesday, the scope of discussion quickly expanded to include salary increases too, and the public chimed in.

Honolulu resident Wallyn Christian recounted in her testimony her struggle to survive by working multiple jobs. Her 32-year-old son lives with her, she said, because he can’t afford rent elsewhere. She pointed out that council members already make more than many of their constituents, including those who work as first responders.

“I’m sorry you have to work overtime, I’m sorry you have to be at work on weekends. Welcome to Hawaii,” she said.

Natalie Iwasa also testified in opposition, suggesting a structural change for how salaries could be determined. While the Salary Commission is theoretically independent, its members are appointed by the council and the mayor – the very recipients of the commission’s pay recommendations.

The commission’s composition should be drawn from elsewhere, Iwasa said, recommending that commissioners be drawn from good governance organizations.

On the bill that would prohibit outside employment, Tupola swayed some of her colleagues with a speech that she gave in opposition. She invoked the idea that elected officials should have vocations outside of governance that tether them to the realities of everyday life.

“I do think that excluding outside employment is moving us towards creating more career politicians because we need to have the average constituent’s background, who grinds two to three jobs, day and night," said Tupola.

In response, Kiaaina and Waters removed Bill 33, which they had introduced as a way to ban outside employment through city ordinance. Council members did vote to advance Resolution 23-109, which is the same in substance but would turn the question to voters as a proposed amend to the city charter.

That measure has two more hearings before it would pass. 

Council member Radiant Cordero, who chairs the council’s budget committee, noted that she did not include funding for the pay boost in the budget. She issued a press release Tuesday saying that she disagrees with the Salary Commission’s recommendation and committed to returning her portion of the increase if it’s granted. 

Council member Val Okimoto, who previously hadn’t taken a public stance, spoke at length in support of the increase. 

"I fully understand the plight of the everyday people. I understand because I am one. I was one of those teachers on the strike – when you talk about teachers, guys, I was one of those," Okimoto said.

She rebutted Tupola’s argument that council members lacking the option for outside employment would lead to career politicians, pointing to the council’s term limit of eight years. Okimoto also said that she believes that prohibiting outside work could be good for transparency.

And though they expressed opposing views on the pay increases, Okimoto agreed with Iwasa – as well as Waters' past statements – that the system itself is flawed.

"Moving forward, I would like to fix this process so it is no longer a burden on future councils," she said.

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