Honolulu's Natalie Iwasa On 2 Decades Of Minding The Public's Business - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

The Bike Mom is currently on the front lines of battles over rail and City Council pay raises.

Even before her appointment to the HART Board, Natalie Iwasa was a fixture at Honolulu rail and City Council meetings. Bureaucrats aren’t always happy to see her coming, but the certified public accountant is no gadfly — she knows her stuff.

In an interview edited for length and clarity, the Hawaii Kai resident, a certified public accountant, explains why she’s taken on a second job of sorts as an unpaid but constant presence on the fringes of local government. She spoke not for the HART Board, but as an individual.

What’s going through your mind about the Honolulu rail project as we finally reach the point where the trains are running, albeit only over 10 miles so far?

Well, I guess just on the immediate horizon is this new lawsuit (filed against then Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation by a contractor seeking more than $99 million over construction delays). Obviously that’s not a good thing.

But there were a lot of people who were excited about riding the rail in the first days.

Have you ridden it?

No, I was not able to do that yet.

Would Honolulu be better off if we had never embarked on the rail project?

Overall? I think so. Because what we’re doing is we’re taxing people on their food, their medical services and rent. And especially the people on the Waianae side, right? We’re taxing them. And then we’re telling them we’re going to use this tax to build rail and make your lives better because you won’t have to drive as much. But they’re already struggling.

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And to have this $10 billion-plus project that impacts all of us, I don’t see the benefit. Even Congress said at one point that basically we’re the poster child for a way not to do a transit project. It’s just a lot of money and the benefit I feel is not going to be worth it.

You were appointed to the HART Board early in 2021, but you had already been closely monitoring the HART meetings as a rail project critic. Has anything changed in the way you look at it now that you have the vantage point of a board member?

Not really. But what I feel has changed is that I have a greater ability to make my voice and my opinions known to the board themselves. As a member of the public, people are only allowed to testify for a minute or several minutes. And that’s really not adequate time to get across ideas that are complex.

There were so many things with the prior directors that were kind of covered up until the very last minute. But there’s still room for improvement.

People hear me, and so that puts a little pressure on the staff, for example, to make sure that their numbers are correct or to get the internal audit function moving along. These types of things are really important and I feel that if I weren’t there they wouldn’t be happening, or not as quickly anyway.

So in that respect, it’s changed. Otherwise, my concerns related to the fiscal side of it are still very much the same as they were before. Probably more so now.

You said at one point that project transparency improved after the latest executive director was hired. Do you still feel that way?

Oh, yeah. I feel that there’s a lot more stuff that’s come out. There were so many things with the prior directors that were kind of covered up until the very last minute. But there’s still room for improvement.

For example, I had asked a while ago for this discussion about changes on the bus routes, because I feel it’s important for people to know that their daily lives are going to be changing. And we only have heard that in the last month or two prior to the opening of the rail. So there’s still plenty of room for improvement in that area.

How do you feel about still being prevented from participating in some HART board action, including executive sessions, because of the chair’s insistence that you sign a nondisclosure agreement and your refusal to do so?

That’s a little bit frustrating for me, particularly when there are things like opinions related to the budget. That was something I just learned about at the recent June meeting, that the Corporation Counsel had come out with an opinion on who has authority basically to set the budget for the rail project. It’s frustrating for me to not be involved in those types of discussions.

Skyline train rail commute mass transit free Keone’ae University of Hawaii West Oahu
There was a lot of excitement at the opening of the light rail, but Natalie Iwasa says that the benefit isn’t going to be worth the cost. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

And there are a couple other members who have told me that they wish that I could participate because they feel like my input is important. So I’m just hoping that it will be resolved soon.

I don’t know where Rep. Scott Saiki is with this, but my understanding is that something was going to be done about that. (The House speaker appointed Iwasa to the board and the state Attorney General’s Office has argued she should not have to sign the confidentiality agreement.)

You think some kind of a meeting of the minds might occur between the state AG and the Honolulu Corporation Counsel?

Actually, I think it’s going to take legal action. I don’t think that there’s going to be any kind of compromise there.

For the record, if you were allowed into executive sessions, would you would treat the information as privileged?

Absolutely. I mean, when I first was appointed, I was allowed in those sessions and I didn’t go out and release a bunch of confidential information.

I’m a CPA and I’m bound by confidentiality. I have to be very, very careful with my clients’ information. So it’s not something that’s new to me. And I would absolutely treat it as confidential, if that’s what it is.

Let’s switch switch gears to the City Council. Are you opposed to those 64% pay raises or just the way that they came about?

It’s absolutely the amount. Certainly they deserve something. I had said 7%. Even if it had been 10%, there wouldn’t be this backlash that we have today.

And you’ve also had problems with how the process has played out?

Well, part of it, because the salary commission did have their meetings. They were open to the public. They did allow public testimony and they were pretty flexible with the time that they provided.

The part that really bothers me, though, is that the council side really didn’t want to hear people testifying on that.

The two resolutions that were proposed to rescind the increases were not heard, and that was because of the chair’s position that he felt like, “We shouldn’t be voting on our own salaries.” Well, what that resulted in is that the public really didn’t get to hear a clear position by council members.

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 City Council pay raises during a marathon meeting last month. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

You voiced concern at a recent council meeting that if the city prohibits council members from outside employment, the salary commission could come back with even higher raises for council members. Why is that? 

The salary commission had actually discussed three options for the increases and they chose the lowest increase. The highest one that they were looking at was a 169% increase over what they were making last fiscal year.

Now assuming they pass some kind of ban on outside employment, the argument could then be made that, “Well, OK, so now they are full time and they’re not allowed to have any kind of outside employment. And therefore, we need to make sure that the council members are making adequate money for their full-time status.” That’s where I think the additional salary would come in next.

Regardless of the pay raises, where do you stand on prohibiting outside employment for council members?

I don’t think it’s a good idea. Current law opens up the position to people who have businesses. We want to have our City Council represent a variety of people. And I think if we were to ban outside employment, that would prohibit certain people from running.

If somebody does one thing or even two things that I don’t like, does that mean that I would support a recall? For me, that’s a tough call.

One of the things that banning employment does is create career politicians, because you get done with your term or your limit, and then it’s like, “Oh my gosh, what do I do next?” And so you look for another potential elective office. I mean, that happens anyway, but I feel it would happen more if we banned outside employment.

I spend a lot of time on council stuff, and I manage to service my (CPA) clients and do both.

How do you feel about this budding effort to recall council members because of the pay raises?

I knew right away when they proposed 64% that a lot of people would be upset. I’m glad that we have that process in place because it gives people an outlet to make sure that there are consequences. And we’ll see what happens, I guess.

Do you support the recall?

I honestly don’t know how to answer that because I have mixed feelings. I try to look at the whole picture. I’ve supported people who I felt were good, could do the best thing, even though for example they supported rail. But overall, they’re doing a good job or would do a good job.

For me personally, if somebody does one thing or even two things that I don’t like, does that mean that I would support a recall? For me, that’s a tough call. But for other people, sometimes they’re single-issue people.

Political cartoonist John Pritchett was pleased House Speaker Scott Saiki stirred the pot by appointing Iwasa to the HART Board. (John Pritchett/Civil Beat/2021)

During the last legislative session, there was a lot of focus — especially here at Civil Beat — on making government more transparent and ethical. Now that the session is over, how do you feel the Legislature did in that regard?

Well, it seems like they could do a lot more. Just pick any of those bills that didn’t go through. It’s frustrating. Even to know that they still exempt themselves from the Sunshine Law.

And for anybody who’s ever gone to one of those committee meetings, you make that effort to go there, you sit there for, I don’t know — an hour, sometimes longer. And then they’re done and they huddle around and whisper to each other. That’s one of the biggest things that they could change, but there just seems to be no political will to do that.

You watch the City Council about as closely as anybody. That’s probably an understatement. Does the Sunshine Law always work at the council level or is it sometimes a little too restrictive?

I think for the most part it works. Now, if you listen to council members who were legislators before, you’ll hear complaints about it because they aren’t free to meet with more than one other council member on a particular issue. But for the most part, I feel it’s been working.

I realized if I don’t want that type of thing to happen in the future, I need to be involved.

And I wish the state Legislature would do the same thing to abide by it and really embrace it because it helps the public understand what is being done and when it’s being done and allows people to provide input.

You have been a community advocate for a long time now. You followed the action at City Council and HART Board meetings to such an extent that you’re probably one of the foremost experts on many of the issues that they deal with. Why have you spent so much of your time on this?

Oh, well, two things. I feel it’s important and I have that ability. A lot of people work for somebody else and have a second job and they just don’t have that time. I have the flexibility to do that because I have my own business.

I feel it’s important because, oh my goodness, there’s so much stuff that goes on. And if people aren’t speaking up, then they’re just going to do whatever they want.

But you could have spent so much more time at the beach.

Yeah, I guess that’s a good point.

It’s because I care. I care about what happens. I care that, you know, we’re making policies that hurt our local people. That we have this tax system at the city level that is not equitable, that’s not efficient.

And I feel I bring a level of expertise to it that council members and people making the law really ought to understand. And sometimes they don’t.

Candidate Natalie Iwasa's campaign cleanup of a property along Kapahulu Ave /Winam Street.
Iwasa has twice run unsuccessfully for the Honolulu City Council. She says there won’t be a third attempt. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

Where did the “Bike Mom” nickname come from?

That was from a long time ago. I used to ride my bike with both my boys attached, and then I would go to the neighborhood board meetings and one time there was a sergeant from HPD who said, “Oh, here’s the bike lady.” And I said, “You really ought to call me the bike mom,” and it just stuck from there.

When did your community advocacy start?

I think it was around 2004. I live in Hawaii Kai, next to the Kamilonui Valley. First I testified to the council about the East Honolulu Sustainable Communities Plan. And then there was a proposal to build a whole bunch of houses, and I thought, “Oh, that would be awful.”

And then I read in the paper how a bunch of people had signed a petition and I’m like, “Oh, good, somebody is taking care of it. Somebody is expressing the opinion of many of us.” And then the approval went through and I realized if I don’t want that type of thing to happen in the future, I need to be involved. And so that’s kind of how it started.

From there, I just gradually learned more and spent more time. And I’m still learning. There’s still so much stuff that goes on there that I find very interesting.

You’ve run for City Council twice. Do you think you’ll run again?

I don’t think so. It’s very hard emotionally. It’s very hard physically. And it’s very hard financially. I did it twice. I don’t want to go through that again. It takes a toll on a person.

I was given a PAC donation. I returned it. I was asked to go to apply for union endorsements, and there was no way I was going to do that. Without having that kind of backing, it’s really hard.

One of the things that I wish were changed is the ability for corporations to have so much influence in our elections. If it were just people, I think it would be fair. It would level the playing field.

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

Hawaii has been a one-party state, run by the democrats and their union bosses, for decades. This total monopoly creates an environment where incompetence and corruption are free to grow and thrive. This is not how a democracy should be run. I admire Natalie for swimming against the current. I’m not sure what her political leanings are, but even if she is a Democrat, I would trust her to act in the best interest of the people she represents. Unfortunately, It would take an army of Natalie Iwasas to turn around this sorry situation, but for now, I’m glad she’s actively involved.

Hoku · 1 month ago

Thank you Natalie for all that you do for the community!.. your efforts does no go unnoticed.

2cents · 1 month ago

Would Hawaii become a better place if we have more independent citizens with no beholden obligations like Natalie at the City Council and State Capitol?

ChoonJamesHI · 2 months ago

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