The upcoming Honolulu City Council election will help determine how the city copes with a raft of controversial questions, including how best to use land as the state converts to renewable energy, where affordable housing should be located, whether to retreat from sea level rise and how to hire and keep good workers.

The four Honolulu City Council members who will be elected on Nov. 8 will be asked to share responsibility for how well the island navigates what lies ahead. They will do this by passing laws, addressing city expenditures, approving the budget, setting tax rates, confirming government officials, overseeing city government functions, approving or denying controversial construction projects and, in general, asking tough questions.

They will do their work in a difficult economic climate, with rising interest rates and spiraling inflation putting new pressures on residents and prospective tourists. The waning coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile, will continue to cast a long shadow as local businesses continue to right themselves after two and a half turbulent years.

Honolulu Hale.
Decisions made at Honolulu Hale, home to the mayor and city council, affect residents island-wide. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The City Council race is now down to eight candidates competing for four seats:

Only two are running on their previous council records — Tommy Waters, the incumbent running for the District 4 seat, and Ron Menor, the District 8 candidate who already served eight years on the council. He avoided the city’s term limits by running in a different, reconfigured district this time.

In separate interviews in recent weeks, Mayor Rick Blangiardi and long-serving former council member Ann Kobayashi both agreed that Honolulu is at a pivot point and that decisions will be made in the next few years that will reshape and transform the city.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi talks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters, Aug. 3, 2022, at Civil Beat's office.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi says good collaboration between his office and the council will be key to fixing city problems. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

It is essential that the new council members be courageous, reflective and collegial, both said, because the nine-member council will need to make decisions that anger some residents while looking to the larger public good. They will need to represent their own districts competently but also share a sense of responsibility for the well being of other parts of the island, they said.

“First and foremost, I would hope that they would understand their districts very well, and … that at the same time, they would understand our communities at large because we need to collaborate,” Blangiardi said.

“We need big picture players, people who see the big picture,” he said.

The candidates who get elected will also have a direct effect on Blangiardi’s public record. He will need support in his next two years in office to accomplish his agenda, but also to place himself in a strong position to seek reelection, which he has said he plans to do.

The council also needs to be able to work well with state officials, Kobayashi said, because many times the state imposes far-reaching, broad-brush mandates without the city having enough resources to meet the new requirements.

Honolulu City Council member Ann Kobayashi6
Former council member Ann Kobayashi says the new City Council members will need to work closely with the state to protect Honolulu residents’ interests. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

“We need good people on the council to work with the Legislature, as well as the governor and mayor,” said Kobayashi, who served on the Honolulu City Council for almost two decades in two separate stints. She left the council in January 2021.

Here’s a look at some of the challenges the city and council face and what role the council plays in addressing them.

A Shortage Of City Workers

Staffing shortages mean that some departments are struggling to keep up with the work expected of them. Some departments are down by a third; some departments are even more depleted. City officials are trying to fill the empty slots, but they are competing with private employers who can offer more money faster and with fewer administrative hurdles.

Blangiardi said recruitment and retention of competent and qualified workers is key, as is replacing aging information technology systems, both of which will require the city to make significant investments. He said the city’s IT structure had also suffered what he called “woeful neglect.”

For the council, that may mean making tough funding calls, among other things.

An upcoming audit of the city’s human resources department, meanwhile, recently authorized by the council, may expose deeper problems in the way the city recruits workers.

Land-Use Disputes

Conflicts over land use will take center stage in the years ahead and council members will need to deliberate over the costs and benefits of projects that meet general societal needs but are unpopular with the closest residents.

Increasing density in urban corridors is going to be a hot topic. Honolulu must build more than 22,000 housing units in the next few years to meet its current needs, according to a 2019 state study.

The mayor has pledged to make creating more housing a centerpiece of his administration. But neighbors often resist increased density where they live.

Council members will need to mediate between their constituents’ desires and the needs of people who don’t live there yet. The council has the power to vote to approve projects or not, and to grant variances that allow developers to build structures that might not otherwise be allowed, for example, for high-rise buildings in the Chinatown historic district.

Left, Sheraton Hotel, Hilton properties with Century Center (left center). Convention center located in middle of frame.
Yet more density is coming in a city where many residents resist higher density construction. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Meanwhile, the administrative entity that needs to issue permits for construction, the Department of Planning and Permitting, is in disarray. The director and a top technology official resigned, and last week Acting DPP director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna told City Council members that her two deputy positions were vacant and that Katia Balassiano, chief land use planner, was also leaving the city staff.

Balassiano’s departure comes as city officials engage in ambitious programs to transform land-use planning and expedite a permitting process that a recent report by council member Andria Tupola found can take up to two years.

DPP must be fixed quickly because it needs to function effectively for the city to address homelessness, senior housing, housing affordability and the construction of monster homes, Kobayashi said.

“Issues with development are really critical,” she said.

Blangiardi said he is focusing on the DPP, including building up the staff, because “there is so much at stake in that one department.”

The scandal-plagued DPP and its continuing problems are likely to draw council attention next year. Council members have raised pointed questions about DPP’s permitting delays at recent meetings, signaling an intention to begin watching that department more closely. The council would also have the ability to confirm or deny mayoral appointees to the DPP.

Zoning debates are also looming.

Decisions about where to place wind and solar production facilities will fall to the council because the new facilities will require city building permits. In the past month, for example, the City Council’s zoning and planning committee reached an agreement that future wind turbines need to be at least 1.25 miles away from residential areas, an increase from current setbacks. If enacted, this could affect future projects.

New fields of solar panels are coming, officials say, but finding places for them may be controversial. 

State Sen. Gil Riviere fears that energy generation companies will seek to place solar equipment on prime farm land.

“Where are all these solar panels going to go?” he asked.

“It’s a lot of solar panels and a lot of land,” he said, adding that once power-generation facilities are placed on productive farm fields, they will never be removed. They “won’t want to waste the precious land growing tomatoes,” he said.

Budget Decisions

City council members are financial partners with the mayor in adopting the city budget and assuring there is enough money to fund city services and pay for new programs while also balancing the budget. This process happens every year between March and June.

Some big expenses are looming: It seems likely that some of the crumbling infrastructure on the island’s shorelines will need to be replaced. The fight over Leahi Avenue’s status as a private road, meanwhile, highlighted the fact that there are hundreds of roads that are not built to city standards. It seems likely that other districts will ask for roads, particularly for dangerous streets near schools, to be taken over by the city and upgraded.

Global financial forces will also come to bear on the city’s budget, in ways that council member Calvin Say, who chairs the council’s budget committee, frequently points out. Pay raises for the police, as just one example, which sailed to approval to help police recruitment as communities call out for a greater police presence, might be difficult to continue to fund in tighter times and amid continuing international “turmoil,” he warned his colleagues recently.

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