Mayor Peter Carlisle tried to smooth things over with the Honolulu City Council as budget deliberations wrapped up for the year. But a behind-the-scenes political gambit fell flat and left Carlisle with egg on his face even as he scored a compromise on what had been the biggest battle in an otherwise quiet process.
Council Chair Ernie Martin on Wednesday accused Carlisle’s administration of offering a council member — no one will say who — favorable treatment for infrastructure projects in their district if they voted to remove a budget proviso Carlisle says would delay work on an important sewage system expansion.
Martin called the offer “Politics 101” and said while it’s something that’s definitely happened before, it’s particularly disappointing now because Carlisle has portrayed himself and his administration as being above ordinary politics. The allegation came during deliberations on the city’s $620 million capital budget.
Carlisle press secretary Louise Kim McCoy said collaboration and compromise were indeed part of the mayor’s strategy during budget deliberations.
“Throughout the entire budget process, the administration met and worked with City Council members to reach compromises regarding each other’s different priorities, which is ‘politics 101.’ For the vast majority of the budget, it turned out to be successful and hopefully serves the people well,” she wrote in an email to Civil Beat late Wednesday.
“The administration considers the construction of a second digester at Sand Island without delay of critical importance to future development, and various persons met with several Council members about this issue,” she wrote. “As far as the administration is concerned, no compromises affected the digester vote.”
Pressed for specifics on his accusation, Martin told Civil Beat that a council member came to him to tell him about the offer. Martin declined to identify the member.
Nestor Garcia had floated an amendment that would have fully funded the $24.5 million second sewage digester at the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant and would have removed a budget proviso requiring Carlisle’s administration to again study alternatives and have its findings accepted by the council before spending any money on construction.
Martin called on Garcia to withdraw the amendment because Carlisle’s offer represented an attempt to sow dissent among council colleagues. Martin said the problem with the “quid pro quo” system is that any additional projects completed as favors would come at the expense of other worthy projects in other members’ districts.
Garcia said he was unaware of the offer, saying it hadn’t been extended to him perhaps because Carlisle knew that Garcia already supported the policy. Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi, who cut the Sand Island project originally and wrote the proviso, told Civil Beat the vote that she hadn’t been the recipient of the offer, joking that the administration knew she wouldn’t go for it. Council Vice Chair Ikaika Anderson said pretty much the same thing.
Asked if he had gotten the offer, Stanley Chang smiled and said “No comment.”
Civil Beat wasn’t able to ask the other members if they were the anonymous tipster.
If Carlisle did clumsily try to encourage a council member to nix the condition, it wouldn’t be the only 11th-hour effort he made to turn the tide.
On Tuesday, he sent a letter to Martin raising concern about the proviso’s legality, but said he’s “willing to abide by the proviso for one fiscal year in the spirit of cooperation.”
The same day, Managing Director Doug Chin met with Kobayashi with hopes of convincing her to remove the condition. He then sent her a letter making a long-term commitment to waste-to-energy sewage technology (known as “cogeneration”) at Sand Island and elsewhere on Oahu.
“As we discussed, I hope this is sufficient to allay your concerns and reconsider the current proviso,” Chin wrote.
Apparently, it wasn’t sufficient.
Garcia’s proposal eventually died with six members raising their hands in objection, including Martin. Instead, the council unanimously adopted Kobayashi’s amendment, which reinstated $9.5 million to bring the total line item up to $21.5 million but still included the proviso.
The “quid pro quo” accusation is a contentious way to end the budget season, but the council otherwise left Carlisle’s financial plans for the city almost entirely unchanged. Martin in fact complimented the mayor for proposing a “lean” budget that didn’t need too much work.
The final version of the operating budget passed by the council includes $1.964 billion to run the city for the 12 months starting July 1. That’s about $11 million (0.5 percent) more than Carlisle had originally proposed.
The largest addition Wednesday was $5.2 million to fill various vacant positions in the city. Earlier in the process, the council added $2.4 million for the white recycling bin program at schools that Carlisle cancelled earlier this year. (For a detailed look at the council’s changes to the mayor’s budget, read: With Flourish of Changes, Honolulu Council Almost Pau With Budget)
The final version of the capital budget passed by the council has $620 million in projects — about $42 million (7.3 percent) more than Carlisle had proposed.
The largest addition was $23 million more for road rehabilitation, from $77 million to an even $100 million. The only changes Wednesday, outside of the $9.5 million for the sewage digester, was $2.95 million for a community sewer rehabilitation plan and $2 million for a Patsy T. Mink Central Oahu Regional Park.
The approved bills now head to Carlisle’s desk for his signature or veto.
Carlisle talked to Civil Beat just after the budget passed. Standing in the hallway outside his office, he said he was pleased with the council’s work but said it was premature for him to talk about specific provisions within the versions that passed.
“I was looking at it and it doesn’t seem like we’re that far apart so as a result I think we’re going to have to look at it carefully and speak to the council members and see what their concerns are,” he said. “It seems to me like we’ve gotten to a good starting point for us and obviously the question is going to be what money do we really have. That’s my responsibility.”
Nick Grube contributed to this report.