Archive for July 2011

Is Water Board out of control?

July 29, 2011

In the fight with the City Council over control of the new rail authority, HART, the Carlisle administration has often cited the Board of Water Supply as a shining example of a semi-autonomous agency that sets its own spending without council oversight.

Former Councilman Charles Djou turned that reasoning around in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Star-Advertiser, arguing that the Water Board has displayed questionable management and poor judgment and should have to get City Council approval for its spending and rate increases. That would require a City Charter amendment.

The gist of Djou’s argument:

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply is out of control. Over the past several years, BWS has had problems with overpaying management, vague workplace rules and lax fiscal standards. Now BWS seeks a rate increase totaling 70 percent over five years.

The time has come for the Honolulu City Council to re-examine the level of oversight it should be exercising over BWS operations. Currently, the mayor appoints and the City Council confirms the members of the board. Unfortunately, the mayor and Council have failed to hold the board accountable or carefully scrutinize its spending habits.

Today, BWS is asking the public to stomach a whopping 70 percent increase in water rates. If any other public body, whether it be the U.S. Congress, the Legislature or the City Council, were to seek a 70 percent increase in taxes, the response by the public at the polls would be swift and clear.

If BWS actually needs a 70 percent increase for repairing and maintaining our water system, the Council needs to call BWS management on the carpet to ask how and why maintenance was neglected for so long and matters were allowed to fall into such a terrible state of disrepair. If the 70 percent is not needed, and BWS is only asking for a financial cushion for prospective future work, the Council needs to ask management why it thinks this rate increase is a good idea to foist upon local families in the middle of a recession. In either case, this is a clear sign of poor management at BWS.

Because it’s not part of the annual council budget debate, the BWS has enjoyed a fair amount of invisibility in its operations.

But the proposed 70 percent water rate increase in recessionary times has gotten the public’s attention, as has the board’s plan to add to the sting by billing monthly instead of bi-monthly.

I’m not yet convinced there’s a case for a total overhaul, but at the very least the BWS owes us a better explanation of why it needs such a huge increase beyond generalities about maintaining aging infrastructure.

It’s transparency we must insist on because of precedent it sets for HART.

Teachers play political card in contract dispute

July 28, 2011

The latest plea by the Hawaii State Teachers Association to get Gov. Neil Abercrombie back to the bargaining table seems more intended to step up political pressure on Abercrombie than to actually restart negotiations.

In a letter to Abercrombie, HSTA president Wil Okabe made blatant reference to the union’s campaign endorsement of Abercrombie and said, “I am now appealing to you as Neil — a person who I know is better able to resolve this matter than those to whom you have delegated too much authority.”

Suggesting that Abercrombie should abandon a contract offer he believes is in the best public interest to pay off a political debt isn’t likely a winning strategy.

The governor and Department of Education forced on teachers the state’s “last, best and final offer,” which involves a 5 percent pay cut and higher medical premiums, after reaching a handshake agreement with union negotiators only to have the deal voted down by the HSTA board.

If the union was serious about restarting negotiotions, it would do so not with press releases but with back-channel talks aimed at finding common ground for an agreement that could avert the legal battles now in motion.

Since HSTA rejected the state’s final offer, it’s the union’s move to make a workable counteroffer.

The union must face the reality that the state can’t give teachers better terms than the 5 percent pay cuts and higher insurance premiums accepted by the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest public union, or the same terms would have to be given to HGEA and bust the budget.

Further talks between the state and HSTA would likely be limited to other concessions the state could make to teachers without affecting the HGEA contract.

Abercrombie ups the stakes on homelessness

July 27, 2011

Progress has been painfully slow in Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s high-profile battle to end homelessness in Hawai‘i, but give him credit for continuing to hack away at the problem and increase his personal accountability.

A state phone line set up for citizens to report homeless people in need of services drew some derision when few useful calls came in.

Some religious groups doggedly resisted the call of the governor and his homelessness czar Marc Alexander to stop feeding programs in the parks and instead move meal services to the shelters where the homeless can receive other help as well.

And at the halfway point of Abercrombie’s 90-day homelessness initiative, an unimpressive report card had just slightly more than 100 of Hawai‘i’s thousands of homeless helped off the streets.

Undaunted, the governor has now formally created a Hawai’i Interagency Council on Homelessness to bring together representatives from state, county and federal agencies and the private sector to coordinate social services for the homeless, increase transitional and permanent housing, pursue more federal funding and replicate successful initiatives in other states.

Abercrombie will chair the panel himself, putting his own neck on the line politically if the results don’t match the high expectations he’s set.

The latest move gets beyond the official urgency to do something to get the homeless off O‘ahu streets before the APEC meeting in November and reinforces the idea that solving the thorny problem of homelessness is more of a marathon than a sprint.

While the governor looks to the long term, state Reps. John Mizuno and Rida Cabanilla are calling their Human Services and Housing committees together Thursday to look specifically at issues surrounding APEC and the homeless.

A specific item on the agenda at 10 a.m. in Capitol conference room 329 is creating safe zones for the homeless around the island.

It’s always an adventure when Mizuno and Cabanilla get their heads together, but safe zones are worth considering on at least a temporary basis.  We can’t keep telling the homeless where they can’t go without giving them someplace they can go.

A U.S. Senate race for the ages

July 26, 2011

Somebody asked why I didn’t mention Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz yesterday when I ran down the list of possible candidates for Daniel Akaka’s U.S. Senate seat.

Schatz has been included in the early speculation and he hasn’t said no, but a candidacy looks highly unlikely with initial polls showing that it would be an uphill battle for him.

The lieutenant governor wouldn’t have to resign to run for a federal office, but a weak showing in the Democratic primary would severely damage his personal political capital and could also be read as a repudiation of the Abercrombie administration.

Schatz has set himself up nicely to try to climb the political ladder to governor, and he’s not a throw-caution-to-the-wind kind of guy who would risk it to enter a crowded Senate race as an underdog.

In one regard — age — Schatz would make sense as Hawai‘i’s next senator.

It takes time to build seniority in the Senate and Schatz, who turns 40 next year, would be about the same age as Daniel Inouye was when he was first elected to the Senate and started amassing the seniority that has served Hawai‘i so well.

U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, considered by some to be the Democratic frontrunner, would be 65 when inaugurated — about the same age as Akaka was when he was first appointed to the Senate. Some 20 years later with his age a concern at 86, Akaka still only has enough seniority to chair a relatively minor committee.

Of the other potential Democratic candidates, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa would be 61 next year, former Rep. Ed Case 60 and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann 58. The likely Republican candidate, former Gov. Linda Lingle would be 59.

Schatz could serve two terms as lieutenant governor and two terms as governor and still run for the Senate at a younger age than any of the others are now, which says tons about the graying of Hawai‘i’s political leadership.

Hanabusa looking like a House candidate

July 25, 2011

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s new fundraising missive seems a pretty clear sign that she’ll defend her House seat next year rather than jump into the cowded race for Daniel Akaka’s U.S. Senate seat.

An e-mail soliciting funds for her 2012 campaign didn’t exactly specify what office Hanabusa is seeking and she’s said she won’t make a formal decision until August, but the tone was clearly House-oriented.

She accused Speaker John Boehner and the Republican House majority of endangering Social Security, cutting health care, subsidizing big oil and threatening to shut down the government.

“Just imagine what Republicans will try if they control Congress in 2012,” she said. “I need your help to prevent that from happening.”

Hanabusa’s fellow U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono and former Rep. Ed Case have entered the Senate Democratic primary and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann is also looking at the primary in which the winner will likely face former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.

Hanabusa let Hirono beat her to the punch, and the conventional wisdom is that two liberal women would split votes and throw the advantage to the moderate Case. If Hannemann turns the race four-way, it could become a crap shoot.

Hanabusa’s safe course would be to keep the House seat that took three tries to win and wait to run for the Senate when 86-year-old Sen. Daniel Inouye retires.

But it’s the winner of the Akaka seat who will ultimately succeed Inouye as the state’s senior senator, and the deciding issue could come down to which candidate voters see as best qualified to to pick up the heavy lifting Inouye has long provided in bringing home the bacon for Hawai‘i.

It would be ironic if Hanabusa ends up the odd candidate out, as she has the most proven record of the group as a legislative heavy-lifter.

In her 12 years in the state Senate, she held every major leadership position and was the first woman to serve as Senate president. She knows how to work the levers of legislative power.

Case influenced major legislation in the state House and rose to majority leader, but the leadership role didn’t suit him and he stepped down after only two years to operate as a dissident.

Hirono was never considered a major player during her years in the Legislature, and none of the three has served in Congress long enough to leave a significant mark.

For Hannemann and Lingle, the only legislative experience was at the county council level, where both were viewed as more interested in priming their runs for mayor than doing legislative grunt work.

Pause in U.S. space leadership doesn’t refresh

July 21, 2011

It’s sad to see the pause button hit on U.S. leadership in space exploration, with the landing of Atlantis today marking the end of the 30-year space shuttle era that had 135 missions.

For the time being, U.S. astronauts have no way into space other than to hitch a ride with Russia or one of the other international players. Development of future American space vehicles is being left to private industry rather than NASA, which could lead to innovation or wheel-spinning.

We need to be careful not to fall too far behind in an endeavor that for 50 years has been a major source of national pride as well as technological advancement.

Cries that we shouldn’t worry about space when we have so many problems on earth are short-sighted. Space exploration will remain a significant driver of the world economy, and it makes no more sense to abandon  leadership to other countries than in information technology or autos.

The space program started out as a military imperative as much as a civilian program as the U.S. and Soviet Union raced to develop ever more deadly ways to deliver nuclear weapons and defend against them.

Now that nuclear weapons concerns have shifted more to dirty bombs than ICBMs, it makes sense to go the route of international cooperation in space through efforts such as the space station.

But like the other major areas of scientific research and economic development, there will be leaders and there will be laggards, and it’s in the U.S. national interest to maintain leadership.

I admit to a personal attachment to the shuttle program after covering its beginnings when I worked for a national news service in Washington, D.C.

I followed the shuttle as either a reporter on the scene or the editor in charge of coverage from the first flight of the Columbia that took John Young and Robert Crippen into space on April 12, 1981 through the 25th flight — the ill-fated Challenger mission of Jan. 28, 1986 on which we lost seven astronauts including Hawai‘i’s  Ellison S. Onizuka.

Getting a vehicle this big and complex safely into orbit and back as many times as we did was one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

Birthday predictability

July 20, 2011

Today I have the pleasure of celebrating the birthdays of not one, but two, granddaughters and I’m not going to pollute the day with politics.

Sloane and Nakaylee were born exactly one year apart; Sloane is turning 8 and Nakaylee makes 7.

We have an unusual number of doubled-up birthdays in my family, including one I share with my brother Rick, who was born on my 9th birthday in what was truly the best birthday gift I ever received.

Rick’s wife Juanita shares the same birthday as our father, and their daughter Corryne had her first child Tristan on her own birthday.

We also have an unusual number of people born on the 2nd of various months, which leads to a conclusion that we’re a family of either amazing coincidences or a predictable annual schedule of knocking boots.

Anyway, I couldn’t think of a better way to send my best wishes to Sloane and Nakaylee than a combination of The Three Stooges and the Beatles.


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