Honolulu City Council can be a catalyst for change


By being constitutional, the legislature can influence all aspects of government activity through legislation, investigation and funding.

In Honolulu, the city council sits in this extraordinary position. All municipal offices are subject to the requirements and inquiries of the council.

Day in, day out, the Council carries out these tasks with care. Occasionally, however, it took more than a gentle touch.

That was the case in 1976 when the Council launched a large-scale investigation into the Kukui Plaza project for kickbacks. The investigation unfolded over two years through a multitude of fascinating hearings and tense legal proceedings. Unsavory city staff, seedy security guards, scandalous developers, conflicting judges, and a council chairman with a pistol pack – all played an important role in the investigation.

It was a chaotic and monumental endeavor that resonated for decades. The investigation fueled several criminal cases and sparked discussions about switching to an elected prosecutor. It also reaffirmed the city council’s extensive legislative powers and the importance of transparency and ethics in city government.

Since the Kukui investigation, the city council has acted swiftly with its legislative powers to fight corruption when necessary. Our city is again involved in dozens of corruption cases with numerous different departments.

Honolulu Hale.
The city’s legislature can do a lot more to improve governance in Honolulu, if they so choose. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

Unfortunately, the reaction of the Council to this latest round of news about the railroad project, kickbacks, police wrongdoing and more has been only symbolic discussion and testing. Without a doubt, the easiest thing to do is to avoid political setback.

Fortunately, for the Council it does not have to be an ‘all or nothing’ situation. There are many politically safe steps the city council can take to increase accountability, transparency and restore our city’s reputation.

What the council can do

Like other jurisdictions, the city council can reform the way it administers settlements and claims. You can do away with voluntary board meetings and only close doors when privacy is required by law. The council can also prohibit confidentiality agreements and restrict the city’s use of general liability clauses “do not admit misconduct”.

Rather than labeling a resolution “confidential” and then clandestinely disclosing the costs to taxpayers after a closed session, the Council may require that any settlement or maintenance resolution resolution be published and include costs before action be seized. The existing settlement and entitlement rituals of the city administration are all remnants of an old-fashioned government that can no longer be justified today.

The city council can remove all fees for requesting public records. Fees are not required by law. The city is also prohibited from generating profits. With almost all city departments having tax-funded staff to manage records, it looks like the city is profiting from the public.

The city council can issue efficiency and transparency standards for all departments in the city. The slow and clandestine action by agencies such as the ethics committee, planning and licensing authority, and even the business consultant prevents the city from addressing serious issues of malpractice and program flaws in a timely manner.

The city council can work towards creating a single department to house all of the bodies and commissions. Several other US cities already have. Right now, the board’s personnel, finance, and operating rules vary so widely that it is both worrying and embarrassing.

The Deferred Compensation Board, Neighborhood Boards, the Youth Commission, the Arborist Committee, HART, and the rest – all do important, often statutory, work on behalf of the public. It is high time the city acted that way.

The city council can work to remove the “fox guarding the chicken coop” systems in the city. For example, requiring elected officials to file tax returns with their financial disclosure forms will increase the integrity and accuracy of each self-filing.

Similar to the federal government model, the restriction of the recruitment of political office holders and elected office holders by semi-autonomous agencies will help to preserve the autonomy and legitimacy of these programs. Likewise, exempt employees work across the city.

Financial supervision is the city council’s most powerful tool.

The official extension of protection from workplace violence, sexual harassment and whistleblower to these employees is long overdue. Real reforms are not possible when the “fox” decides on fates and complaints.

Financial supervision is the city council’s most powerful tool. If a Financial Regulation is found to have been breached, as was the case with the Domestic Violence House, the Council must resist the urge to sweep it under the rug and throw more good money after bad. Instead, the city council can order the publication of this type of information.

Unlike its 1976 counterpart, the Honolulu city council may not want to wield a firearm today and rush headlong into a full-scale investigation into corruption in the city. And that’s fine. You can still take steps to enforce accountability, increase transparency, and be a real catalyst for change.


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