After a year, city's rudder is firmly in mayor's hands
The Latin phrase meaning "seize the day" could describe Mayor Mufi Hannemann's first year in office, a year filled with potholes, sewers, budgets, taxes, mass transit, trees, curbside recycling and many ups and downs.
"I think everything in life and in being a good leader is listening to what people are feeling and then seizing the moment," Hannemann said in a recent interview.
But mayoral watchers said that not only did the past year allow Hannemann to grab hold of the reins of the mayor's office, it now means that Hannemann's own stamp will be on issues and projects -- good and bad.
"I think at this point, it's Mufi Hannemann's administration. We forget about (former Mayor) Jeremy Harris," said state Sen. Sam Slom (R, Hawaii Kai), who supported Hannemann's mayoral bid in 2004. "The ball is in his court now."
And that's just fine by the mayor.
"This is not a job for the faint-hearted. If you're one that likes to deal in theories and ideas only and you don't like to make decisions, you don't like the buck stopping at your desk, this is not the job for you," Hannemann said.
There have been ups and downs: Hannemann was praised for much of his work during the first part of the year, but in recent weeks he has taken hits on things like scrapping curbside pickup of mixed recyclable trash and standing firm on his position.
"I think he did pretty good, actually. He started off really good. I thought he did what he had to do," said Councilman Gary Okino, who supported Hannemann's opponent, Duke Bainum, during the 2004 election but found himself agreeing with the mayor several times this year. "A little bit shaky toward recently, though."
A year ago yesterday, Hannemann was sworn into office as the 12th mayor of Honolulu.
It didn't take long for him to get to work. His first official act was to stop renovation work on the deteriorating Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium.
"When he came into office, he really hit the ground running," Council Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said.
"I think I wanted to let everybody know there was a new sheriff in town," said Hannemann, a one-time high school and college athlete. "And so I felt that I needed to come up to bat, hit some singles, hit some doubles as opposed to getting up there and just waiting to hit that big grand slam."
And that, political scientist Neal Milner said, is just what a newly elected mayor does. "It's not a bad way to establish yourself as a mayor. The first year, you can't do a lot of buildings ... you can't build your boulevards and plant your trees. One of the ways to establish yourself is to say, 'I can get things done, I can get things rolling.'"
Kobayashi and Okino said the new mayor certainly did get things going on the city's finances.
Hannemann told the Council and the public that the city was behind on maintaining basic infrastructure, such as roads and sewers. To pay for deferred maintenance, the city needed more money -- increases in sewer fees and vehicle weight tax -- sought by Hannemann.
"Fiscally and budgetwise, I think he did all the right things that he had to do -- even though he had to raise fees and all of that. I think it was the responsible thing to do," Okino said. He said Hannemann also had the advantage of succeeding Harris, who faced mounting criticism at the end of his term.
Hannemann said the key has been explaining his position to the public. "One of the things that we've done a good job at, whether you like our message or not, is we spend a lot of time communicating," he said. "If you can't communicate, you're always gong to have a very difficult time."
But Slom and others said that is exactly what is happening now with issues such as the complaints about rising property assessments, which have risen about 26 percent over the previous year.
"Mufi's a master communicator, but he's not communicating directly where ... the money's going to be used," Slom said.
Last weekend, Hannemann announced that he was giving a one-time $40 million property tax cut for homeowners and proposing creating a new homeowner tax classification.
Slom cautions that rising property assessments could still become a powder-keg issue if Hannemann is not careful. "One-time things are nice but they don't solve the problem," Slom said. "People are really upset about this ... because these bills are substantial."
Milner said, "You can really walk a tightrope with" property taxes. Hannemann could be faced with "a lot of old people on fixed incomes who are about to lose their homes ... in his office screaming at him," but he also has to watch the city's revenues. "That's a tricky one to walk because property tax revolts are nasty things."
Slom said a property tax revolt like the one on Kauai last year could be in the cards.
"There are so many things that are coming home to roost at the same time, these additional fees -- sewer, real property, motor vehicle. Then you've got looming a year from (now), the general excise tax increase, which he has been the cheerleader for," Slom said. "He's got a lot of stuff here that now has his name on it."
Hannemann lobbied for the city's new authority to raise the general excise tax half of a percentage point on Oahu for mass transit through the state, and then he got the tax increase passed at the City Council.
Okino said rail transit has "always failed because politicians don't have the courage to raise the necessary revenues to do it, and for him to come in and take all that heat because he saw the value of this rapid transit, to me that was the most impressive thing he did."
Criticism followed Hannemann's announcement that he would not move forward with Jeremy Harris' plans for curbside recycling. Hannemann instead will focus on upgrading green-waste pickup.
"It seems everything was moving forward smoothly except for a couple of hiccups with the unions and the bid dispute, but those were just speed bumps in the process," said Jeff Mikulina, Sierra Club of Hawaii director.
Hannemann said he knew that people were disappointed, but he believed that there was a lot of false hope for a curbside recycling program that would not be cost-efficient.
He said that if the public wants curbside recycling of mixed recyclable items such as newspapers, plastics and aluminum, it is going to cost each homeowner more. "If you want to do green waste, we can do it for free, but we do it for mixed recyclable, fine, but it's going to cost you something."
Mikulina said his group has been disappointed with the Hannemann administration's approach to solid waste, renewable-energy projects that never got off the ground and some land-use issues, particularly the mayor's decision to negotiate a settlement in protecting Waimea Valley.
Mikulina said he believes the court would be a better venue to resolve the question on the price for the valley, but if Hannemann does reach a settlement, he hopes it is for the protection of the entire valley. "It's a disappointing first year," said Mikulina, whose organization endorsed Bainum in 2004.
But another environmental group has a different opinion.
"We've happily found him to be responsive to our requests to listen to our concerns about issues that the Outdoor Circle is involved with throughout the county," said Bob Loy, the Outdoor Circle's director of environmental programs. "That's a pleasant surprise because we weren't quite sure how accessible he was going to be."
The Hannemann administration sought the Outdoor Circle's advice on several issues, including what to do about the trees planted by the previous administration along Kuhio Avenue.
"I think there was a lot of talk about him ripping out trees like King Kong, and the reality was he was eager for our input," Loy said. He said the number of trees removed was "far less than the Draconian measure people were anticipating."
Loy said the Outdoor Circle and the Hannemann administration do not always agree, "but we're finding that it's a good two-way street."