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Honolulu Citizens Get Serious About City Hall Transgressions

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Politicians seldom get much respect, but the ones at Honolulu City Hall seem to be losing what little is left--with the mayor and nearly half of the City Council recently landing in trouble with the law, and one former councilman in prison.

“It’s disgraceful and it’s embarrassing,” said voter Carol Hanna after testifying in favor of an ethics bill at City Hall. “We can’t afford to have the reputation of the most corrupt city council in America. We’ve got to take positive steps to clean it up.”

When their elected officials began tripping up, Honolulu voters at first seemed to shrug it off. Efforts to recall two council members fizzled last year for lack of signatures.

But the situation has spiraled to the point where it’s hard to ignore. The politicians’ problems are fueling a push for campaign finance reform and ethics bills at the state Legislature and City Hall. A drive to impeach one councilwoman has reached the state Supreme Court.

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“It’s gone from one council member to the next and, all of a sudden, the council’s become a laughingstock,” said Council Chairman John DeSoto, who just took the leadership reins from a wayward member.

Its reputation notwithstanding, the nine-member council has a serious responsibility: stewardship of the island of Oahu, which makes up both the city and county of Honolulu, and its $1-billion operating budget.

Here is a rundown on the troubles at Honolulu Hale (pronounced “ha-leh”), the red-roofed, Spanish Mission-style seat of local government.

* Mayor Jeremy Harris, a top contender in this year’s governor’s race, is facing an investigation by the city prosecutor of his mayoral campaign’s fund-raising activities. The state Campaign Spending Commission contends that the campaign accepted contributions beyond legal limits and attributed donations to people who didn’t make them--even children. Harris says he’s confident his campaign will be exonerated.

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* Councilman Jon Yoshimura was forced to step down as chairman last month when a state disciplinary board recommended he be suspended from practicing law for six months for lying about a hit-and-run accident. He hit a parked car in 1999 and fled the scene, then repeatedly denied that he had been drinking. He was also fined last year for improperly using campaign funds.

The setbacks aren’t limiting his career goals: Yoshimura plans to run for lieutenant governor.

* Former Councilman Andrew Mirikitani began a four-year prison term in January for taking kickbacks from his staff in exchange for salary bonuses. He was convicted last July of federal felony corruption charges, including theft, bribery and extortion, but refused to step down from the City Council until just before he was sentenced in December.

His colleagues stripped him of his committee positions, but couldn’t force him from office. The case prompted a bill in the state Legislature that would oust politicians immediately upon conviction of a crime, rather than at sentencing.

* Councilwoman Rene Mansho is under investigation by the city prosecutor’s office for malfeasance, and her constituents have filed a petition with the state Supreme Court seeking her impeachment. The former schoolteacher acknowledged last year that her council staff habitually handled her campaign fund-raising on city time, with city property. She had also used campaign funds for travel, then was reimbursed by the city for the same expenses. She paid $80,000 to the city and state in fines and restitution.

* Councilman John Henry Felix is racking up daily fines for holding weddings for pay at his home, mostly for Japanese tourists. He was cited for violating the city’s zoning ordinance governing “home occupations,” and the Zoning Board of Appeals recently upheld the citation. Felix is appealing his case to the Circuit Court. Council members are paid $43,000 annually, and most have other sources of income.

Even Councilman Steve Holmes, who has championed ethics in government, found himself in an awkward position a couple of years ago when the university he claimed to have a degree from said it had no such record.

“City Hall? It’s a mess!” said Yasumasa Kuroda, political science professor at the University of Hawaii. “Just about everyone seems to have some sort of problem, not necessarily serious crimes, but something ethically wrong or at least questionable. . . . There appears to have been a culture of doing whatever they can get away with.”

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Despite its internal problems, the City Council has resolved some issues in the last few months. It voted to ban smoking in Honolulu’s restaurants effective July 1; to purchase 1,875-acre Waimea Valley, a botanical and cultural treasure on the North Shore; and to condemn land for private redevelopment in Waikiki.

The council members’ troubles may simply reflect greater vigilance on the part of authorities. In the last several years, under Executive Director Robert Watada, the state Campaign Spending Commission has stepped up enforcement, investigating numerous politicians and companies that may be involved in illegal political donations.

State legislators have been collared along with city officials. Former state Sen. Marshall Ige is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in January to felony theft--for collecting rent on land he didn’t own--and tax evasion charges. He lost his seat in the 2000 primary after he was charged with campaign spending violations, and was convicted shortly thereafter.

Hawaii officials seem eager to polish their image before this fall’s elections. Bills getting a favorable hearing at the Legislature include campaign finance reform, the recall of lawmakers, mandatory ethics training for officials and the immediate ouster of any politician convicted of a crime. The City Council is considering a bill to strengthen enforcement of ethics laws and limit gifts to officeholders. Last year, it passed legislation requiring ethics training for all city managers, council members and their staffs.

“I think incumbents realize that in order to get reelected, it will be important for both the City Council and the state Legislature to sort of clean house,” Kuroda said.

Voters will have a chance to make sweeping changes this fall. Because of redistricting, with the governor’s race, elections will be held for every state legislative seat. All nine seats on the Honolulu City Council are also up for election, and six incumbents--including those in trouble--must step down because of term limits.

The question is whether Hawaii residents will rise up and take action. The state’s voter turnout, declining for years, dropped to the lowest in the country in the November 2000 elections, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report issued last month. Just 44% of Hawaii residents eligible to vote did so, compared to a national average of 60%. Voter apathy here is attributed partly to lack of competition in many races, but also may reflect growing disenchantment.


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