Open Letter to Residents and Taxpayers of Oahu

Aloha!

You may be aware I am running for Honolulu City Council District 4. I’ve been active in the community for about 15 years and have testified at city council for about as long.  I decided to run, because I believe we must improve the way government is run and our tax dollars are spent.

Several key issues facing Honolulu residents and taxpayers are interrelated – homelessness, affordable housing, infrastructure and rail. As we’ve seen over the past month or so, rail has started impacting city services and these key issues.  Recent budget amendments include:

  • Slashing the Department of Land Management to only two people. The department manages the city’s affordable rentals program as well as all city-owned land. At the current level of funding, the department cannot meet its mandated responsibilities under the city charter;
  • Cutting millions from the Department of Environmental Services, including wastewater treatment and disposal costs for maintenance programs;
  • Cutting the Department of Information Technology’s equipment budget in half. The director testified that the equipment is needed in order to avoid shut down of the city’s entire communications system.

We have been told these cuts were necessary in order to be able to meet FTA requirements to include $44 million (two years) of operating costs for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART) in the city budget. Out of HART’s ~$22 million operating budget, a mere $446,000 was cut, and those funds are likely to be restored during the next budget committee meeting.

In addition, if the full $44 million is included in the operating budget, it would needlessly tie up the $22 million that is for next fiscal year.

The city has options other than cutting these important areas. For example, amounts for FICA, a payroll tax, are routinely over-budgeted.  In addition, our entire real property tax system should be reviewed and updated to be fairer and more efficient and to make sure all taxpayers are paying what they should.  As a CPA and certified fraud examiner, I have the skill and experience to analyze the numbers and make smart decisions about them.

These are some of the concerns I have, but I’d like to hear what’s on your mind.  Please share your thoughts below (where it says “Leave a Reply”) or visit www.NatalieIwasa.com.  Note comments are moderated.

Advertisements

It’s Not About the Tree – How a Process was Subverted and a Community Divided

The November 2017 meeting of the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board was the toughest public meeting I’ve ever been to, with emotions running high.  Members of the community who attended the meeting spoke passionately about their desire to support a lighted tree at Maunalua Bay, except the item on the agenda that evening was not about a tree . . . it was about a process that did not follow the law or include proper disclosures.

Following is a timeline of events related to the city’s acceptance of a gift of a lighted tree at Maunalua Bay:

  • April 26, 2017 – First reading of Bill 40 to create an adopt-a-tree-program to be administered by the city Department of Parks and Recreation is passed by council.
  • May 2, 2017 – Bill 40 discussed in Committee of Parks, Community and Customer Services. The director of DPR opposed the resolution.
  • May 10, 2017 – Bill 40 passed second reading by full council.
  • May 30, 2017 – At the meeting of the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board, Councilmember Ozawa announced that a bill was introduced to adopt the tree at Joe Lukela Beach Park.  I was asked by a board member to monitor the progress of Bill 40.
  • August 22, 2017 – Bill 40 was placed on the agenda of the council’s parks committee, but it was cancelled prior to the meeting.
  • October 24, 2017 (morning) – Resolution 17-278, which is for approval of acceptance of a gift of a trellis system and solar powered panels to power lights for a tree, was discussed in the parks committee.  The gift was valued at $58,000, but there was no mention of the location of this gift.  (Edit for clarification — there was no mention of the location of the gift in the resolution.)
  • October 24, 2017 (evening) – Resolution 17-278 was not mentioned during Councilmember Ozawa’s report at the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board meeting.
  • November 1, 2017 – Resolution 17-278, CD1, was not on the agenda that was posted prior to the meeting, but it was “sunshined” onto the agenda unanimously by councilmembers near the end of the meeting, after most members of the public had left.  The CD1 version of the resolution stated a value of $40,000.
  • November 6, 2017 – Two requests were received for agenda items for the November 28, 2017, meeting of the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board:  1) A local nonprofit organization requested to have a discussion about the process of acceptance of the gift of a lighted tree, and 2) Councilmember Ozawa, through his staff, requested to have a discussion about the lighting of the tree at Maunalua Bay. The board voted to support more openness and discussion regarding issues of this type in the future

According to Hawaii Revised Statutes Sec. 92-7, the council is not allowed to change an agenda once it has been filed if an item is of “reasonably major importance” and will “affect a significant number of persons.”  The state Office of Information Practices has also stated that agenda items must include “sufficient detail and specificity,” so that members of the public understand what is to be discussed without having to look elsewhere.  The council did not follow the Sunshine Law with respect to this gift, and that was the main concern of members of the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board.

Council Bill 40 – status and communications

Council Resolution 17-278 status and communications

Testimony of Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board 12-6-17

Testimony of Natalie Iwasa 12-6-17

Video recording of Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board Meeting November 28, 2017

RFP Posted for Honolulu Ethics Commission Audit

Earlier this week, the request for proposals (RFP) for the audit of the Honolulu Ethics Commission was posted.  The RFP outlines several important issues the auditors should cover, but I have a couple of concerns.

Two inspectors and prior commissioners who recently left the commission are not listed as interviewees.  These people likely have important information that should be considered by the auditor.

The other part is just something that I really don’t understand.  What the heck is “an internal self-control assessment of improvements needed”?  And why is the current executive director supposed to perform this assessment?  If anyone has any clues about this, please shed some light by leaving a comment.

Requests for bid clarification are due December 2, and deadline to bid is December 30.

The RFP is posted on the city’s website.  It’s also available here.

Update November 28.  I found out that the intention of the section on the assessment is to have the executive director perform a “control self-assessment” rather than a “self-control assessment.”  Hopefully that clarification will come out with the addenda on December 16.

Honolulu Charter Amendments – Blank vs. “No” Vote

Some people are recommending “no” votes on all 20 Honolulu charter amendments.  The questions may seem overwhelming, but a straight “no” without understanding each question is irresponsible in my opinion.

The first thing to understand about voting on the charter amendments is that a blank vote doesn’t mean “no” or “yes.”  Here’s what the charter says about voting on amendments:

Section 15-103. Approval of Amendment or Revision -- 

No amendment or revision of this charter shall be effective 
unless approved by a majority of the voters voting thereon.

A blank vote is just blank and doesn’t count.  (Note that the state has different rules.  For state constitutional amendments to pass, a majority of the votes have to be “yes,” excluding blank and over votes, and more than 50% of the voters have to vote “yes” including blanks and over votes.  If more than 50% of the voters leave a state question blank, it acts as a “no” vote.)

Next it’s important to realize and acknowledge that these questions deserve thoughtful consideration.  If the majority of votes are “no,” opportunities for improvement in some areas of our city government will be missed.

For example, question 3 would allow salaries of staff attorneys of the Honolulu Ethics Commission (EC) to be set at a rate comparable to that of other attorneys within the city.  A “no” vote keeps the status quo, which makes it difficult for the EC to hire and retain a good attorney.  (They currently only have one on-staff counsel that this would apply to.)

Some people have pointed out that many of the issues behind these questions should not even be in the charter, and that is a valid point.  The Honolulu Charter Commission did consider rewriting the entire charter and putting just one massive question on the ballot.  I can understand why they didn’t do that, but we should look at simplifying our charter.  That would likely cut down on amendments as well as misunderstandings of what each amendment would do.

One other thing to consider regarding blank votes is that they do make a statement.  If the blanks outnumber the “yes” and “no” votes, perhaps it’s time to rethink the manner in which we make amendments.

Please also note that this process is not done after the election.  The Honolulu Charter Commission will have at least one more meeting prior to the end of the year.  At that time, they will prepare a final report that will be given to the next commission.  Testimony will be taken, and I encourage people to submit comments.  You can sign up for commission updates by sending an email to cclcharter@honolulu.gov.

Correction:  this post originally incorrectly stated the second part of the test required for passage of state constitutional amendments.

20 Charter Amendments – Recommendations and Further Research

For some people, the election can’t come soon enough.  For others, such as voters who are still trying to decipher the 20 charter amendment ballot questions, the question is:  Will I have enough time to do research and make an informed decision?

I attended many of the Honolulu Charter Commission meetings and have put together what I consider to be important points about each question along with my suggestions on how to vote for each one.  That list is available at Hawaii Advocates For Consumer Rights.  (Thank you to Scott Foster for helping me to get this information out.)

For people who are interested in doing their own extended research, the following list may help guide you as you go through the Charter Commission’s website.  For each question, I’ve listed the proposal(s) upon which the questions were based and who introduced them.  You’ll need these numbers to trace through the minutes and testimonies.

  • Question 1 regarding the police commission – #18 (Senator Will Espero), #31 (Commissioner Kevin Mulligan), #159 (Senator Laura Thielen), C-1 and C-2 (Commissioner Mulligan)
  • Question 2 regarding staff attorney salaries for the Honolulu Ethics Commission – #39 (Honolulu Ethics Commission)
  • Question 3 regarding the Prosecuting Attorney’s budget #29 (Commissioner Donna Ikeda)
  • Question 4 regarding HART and rail – #76 and #76A (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
  • Question 5 regarding the Affordable Housing Fund – #3 (Councilmember Elefante) and #122 (American Planning Association)
  • Question 6 regarding long-term plans – #38 and #120 (American Planning Association), #54 (Commissioner Cheryl Soon)
  • Question 7 regarding an Office of Climate Change – #48 (Commissioner Soon) and #73 (Maxine Burkett)
  • Question 8 regarding a new Department of Land Management – #C-5 (Commissioner Soon), #106 (Paulette Tam)
  • Question 9 regarding the zoo fund – letter from Council Chair Martin and C-3 (Commissioner Guy Fujimura)
  • Question 10 regarding executive and legislative powers – #78 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
  • Question 11 regarding the Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund – #116 (Trust for Public Land)
  • Question 12 regarding reviews of boards and commissions – #40 (Commissioner Rick Tsujimura)
  • Question 13 regarding the Grants in Aid Fund – #C-7 (Commissioner initiated)
  • Question 14 regarding special elections deadline – #2 (City Clerk Glen Takahashi)
  • Question 15 regarding term limits – #44 (Commissioner Paul Oshiro)
  • Question 16 regarding minor construction projects – #77 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
  • Question 17 regarding the mayor’s signature – #80 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
  • Question 18 regarding the Honolulu Fire Commission – #86 & #87 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
  • Question 19 regarding the reapportionment commission – #35 (Commissioner Oshiro)
  • Question 20 “housekeeping”
    • a – #23 (Civil Beat Law Center)
    • b – #34 (Commissioner Oshiro)
    • c – #36 (Commissioner Oshiro)
    • d – #79 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)
    • e – #90 (Managing Director Roy Amemiya, Jr.)

If you have questions on any of the proposed amendments, please leave a comment for me.  I’d be happy to try and help.

Update October 25, 2016, – correction and clarification.  It was noted that the description of Question 1 in the pamphlet provided by the Honolulu Charter Commission contains an error.  It indicates the chief can “only be removed for continuous maladministration.”  The charter actually makes it clear that this should not be construed as the only cause sufficient for removal of the chief.  I do not know what the impact of this error will have if this amendment passes, but I still recommend a “yes” vote.

Under Question 13 regarding the grants-in-aid process (GIA), certain city grants that currently have a process, e.g., the Clean Water and Natural Lands fund, would continue to go through that process.  Others, such as Leeward coast and Office of the Mayor on Economic Development, would be required to go through the GIA process.

Charter Amendment #4 on Rail – What’s Not in the Booklet

Voters should have received the 2016 Charter Amendments booklet this week.  There are 20 amendments for voters to read through and decipher.  Question 4 deals with the rail project and deserves much more discussion.

This ballot question is largely the result of a proposal submitted relatively late in the process.  During Honolulu Charter Commission meetings it was mentioned the charter amendment that created HART didn’t adequately consider how rail operations and maintenance (O&M) would work (or not) with TheBus and HandiVan, which are under the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services (DTS).

In addition, certain members of the HART board felt oversight of staff was too limited.  The proposal does make it clear the board sets the policies for the development of the rail system.

It would have been better to have a separate question regarding board powers, but the commission decided to combine these issues into this one question.

The question contains three parts:  1) replace the current Transportation Commission with a Rate Commission;  2) put rail O&M under DTS; and 3) clarify and increase the HART board responsibilities and authority.

Duties of a new Rate Commission would include creation of new sources of revenues.  The commission would also be authorized to collect and report transit data.  Discussions of this proposal did not address the issue of how riders’ personal information would be handled.

While it makes sense to have the rail fare system and route scheduling under the same agency as TheBus, we need to be careful how a transition between HART and DTS would be done.  In this case, everyone (employees, contractors and even vacant positions) who has primary responsibilities related to O&M would transfer to DTS on July 1, 2017.

Those transferred “shall suffer no loss of vacation allowance, sick leave, service credits, retirement benefits or other rights and privileges because of the transfer.”  So basically DTS will inherit HART’s liabilities without the capability of making any near-term changes.

Who are these people, specifically?  How much will this change cost?

With O&M out of the way, what shortcuts will be taken on the rest of the development of rail to meet budget and completion deadlines?  How much will this end up costing us more in the long run?

And how much consideration would DTS give to the quality of work prior to acceptance of the “completed” rail with pressures to simply get it going?

These questions should be answered before this amendment is passed.  Since the Honolulu City Council may introduce charter amendments for the next election, I urge everyone to vote “no” on this.

Honolulu Charter Commission Works on Wording for Proposed Amendments

As election season heats up, a group of people continue their work putting together potential amendments to the Revised Charter of Honolulu. On November 8, registered voters will have an opportunity to vote on proposals such as creation of new city departments, increased term limits and revisions to the rail project, among other issues.

At its July 13 meeting, the Honolulu Charter Commission, narrowed down the list of proposed amendments to 27.  All 27 will likely be on the ballot in some manner. Some may be combined. Due to tight deadlines, no significant amendments will be made to these proposals.

The Committee on Submission and Information is currently working on the wording that will be used for each question as well as educational materials for the public. The public will have an opportunity to provide input on these descriptions (in draft form) 10 a.m. Monday, when the committee comes back from a weekend recess and again 3:30 p.m. Friday, when the full commission meets.

Final wording for the 27 proposals is available on the commission’s website. Some of these require significant changes to city management, so it’s important that voters become familiar with them.

For example, proposal 76A transfers operations and maintenance of the rail project from HART to the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services (DTS), replaces the transportation commission with a new fare commission, and “clarifies” the role of the HART board.

It makes sense to have TheBus, HandiVan and rail under one umbrella, but this proposal also allows DTS to create new sources of revenue (Sec. 6-1703(g)), collect data (Sec. 6-1703(g)(5)) and accept gifts. We should look at these authorizations carefully.

A much-needed change under C-1 would allow the police commission to terminate or suspend the chief of police. The need for this change has become apparent within the past year. Regardless of current affairs, however, this is good policy.

Proposal C-7 revises the grants-in-aid fund by requiring it to be the sole source of funds for city grants (excluding federal, state and affordable housing grants). This will cut down on line-itemed grants, such as the half million dollars that was recently appropriated to Kosong Foundation, an organization that is not in compliance with state law, according to the state attorney general’s website. This amendment would put all nonprofits on equal footing and force them to go through the city’s compliance checklist and vetting process.

Others I think should pass are:

  • #23 – to conform the county public records law to state law;
  • #29 – to allow the prosecuting attorney’s office some autonomy with respect to its budget. (The Honolulu Ethics Commission should also be allowed this autonomy); and
  • #78 – allows the mayor to create special funds with the council’s approval.

Several that I think should not pass are:

  • #35 – deletes the requirement that no more than a majority of the reapportionment commission members shall be from the same political party;
  • #44 – would change term limits from two to three, i.e., allow for 12 consecutive years, for the mayor and councilmembers. It would also create term limits for the prosecuting attorney; and
  • #C-3 – would create a new fund for the zoo and mandate that .5% of the city’s real property taxes be used only for the zoo. (I support the zoo, but special funds like this are bad fiscal policy.)

Keeping up with the commission and the many changes that several proposals have gone through has been challenging. It should be noted I have not read every single proposal, and just because one hasn’t been mentioned does not mean it’s not important.

I encourage voters, residents and taxpayers to carefully review each proposal and continue to provide input to the charter commission. The wording on the ballot is at least as important as the wording of the underlying proposal.