STAR-BULLETIN / APRIL 2008
Stop Rail Now launched its petition drive with a rally at City Hall. Dennis Callan, the group's co-chairman, is at right.
Initiative derailed by wording
Rail opponents vow to continue fighting for a vote by the public
STORY SUMMARY »
The city clerk says "no" to a citizen's petition drive trying to block the $4 billion city rail transit plan.
The decision yesterday afternoon from City Clerk Denise De Costa means she will not put the issue on the November ballot, regardless of whether Stop Rail Now receives enough signatures.
De Costa says the City Charter prohibits a special initiative issue from being placed on the ballot within 180 days of an election.
Stop Rail Now organizers, however, say the clerk is wrong and they are still collecting signatures and are mulling over a court challenge. In the meantime, anti-rail organizers plan to continue collecting signatures that would also be valid for a special election scheduled at a later time.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who declined to comment yesterday, pointed out earlier this week it would cost $1.5 million to $2 million to hold a special election.
FULL STORY »
City Clerk Denise De Costa added to the Honolulu rail transit drama yesterday by saying voters will not be allowed to vote for or against the city's proposed $4 billion transit system in the November election.
In a surprise statement without additional comment, De Costa threw cold water on an initiative by anti-rail group Stop Rail Now, saying the question could not legally be put on the November ballot.
It boiled down to wording on the stop-rail initiative that asks for a special election.
"The Charter prohibits the city clerk from acting upon an Initiative petition calling for a special election if an election is scheduled within 180 days of the submittal of the initiative petition," De Costa said in her letter to the Stop Rail attorney, John Carroll.
"The city clerk is prohibited by Charter from taking any action on a petition calling for a special election and the Office of the City Clerk will not accept for filing a petition calling for a special election," De Costa added.
Stop Rail Now, a nonprofit organization, has been collecting signatures since April to place a question on the ballot to adopt an ordinance that says, "Honolulu mass transit shall not include trains or rail," in an effort to stop Mayor Mufi Hannemann from building a planned 20-mile elevated system from Kapolei to Ala Moana.
Dennis Callan, co-chairman of Stop Rail Now, said the group had been careful with the wording of the petition, but added that the wording of the Charter "is a little muddy."
Callan said his group expected the issue to be put on the November general election ballot.
"The election will be held either at the general election or at a special election later," Callan said. "We are not giving up."
Hannemann did not return several phone calls yesterday afternoon and directed his spokesman to respond.
"The mayor respects the independent decision of the City Clerk's Office," a Hannemann spokesman said. "He remains confident that if the initiative should qualify for a special election later, Oahu voters will remain in strong support of rail transit because it is clearly the best transportation alternative."
Cliff Slater, an organizer who has provided substantial funding to Stop Rail Now, said he and the group's attorney don't agree with the city clerk's interpretation.
"The mayor, despite his claim that he was for petition initiatives, also said that he was going to take every possible action to ensure his rail system is built," Slater said. "That's what he's doing. The corporation counsel does exactly what the mayor wants him to do, and the city clerk does exactly what the corporation counsel wants to do."
Stop Rail Now organizers said that while they might challenge the city's decision, they also will continue collecting signatures for a special election.
Hannemann said in a news conference Monday that holding a special election would cost about $1.5 million to $2 million.
There is little to no possibility the City Council could do anything to get a question on the November ballot, two Council members said yesterday.
The City Council is considering several Charter amendment questions for the general election — including one on whether to create an independent Public Transit Authority to oversee the project — though it could be too late to introduce a measure to allow voters to have a say on the rail system.
The City Council has discussed these measures, which are near approval.
"There's no way for the Council to put any question on the Charter that hasn't been already discussed," said Councilman Todd Apo, who represents Kapolei and supports rail transit. "If the ballot initiative organizers screwed it up, they screwed it up."
Councilman Charles Djou, who has opposed the project from the beginning, said there is a possibility to piggyback the question onto the measure creating the Public Transit Authority. Djou added that it is rare to have a question on the ballot that essentially asks two questions.
"As a matter of principle, I still believe this issue of rail should go to the voters one way or another," Djou said, adding he'd prefer it during the general election versus a special election to save taxpayer dollars.
In April, when Stop Rail announced the petition drive to put the question on the ballot, the City Clerk's Office said the citizen's group would need to have 44,535 verified signatures of registered voters by Aug. 1 for the issue to go on the ballot. Stop Rail says it has collected about 39,000 signatures so far.
Stop Rail’s Options
After the City Clerk's Office said a proposed question by an anti-rail group could not be placed on the November ballot, several possibilities remain:
» Stop Rail Now leaders and attorneys could fight the city in court.
» Stop Rail Now could continue collecting signatures, which leaders said they will, for a future special election. The number of signatures they would need will likely rise because they will need to collect at least 10 percent of the votes to be cast in the mayoral election. Voter turnout this fall is expected to increase with the surge of interest surrounding this year's presidential race.
» The City Council could consider piggybacking the question onto a pending Charter Amendment question on the November ballot on whether to create an independent Public Transit Authority to oversee the project. This option would be difficult for the City Council to approve, one Council member said, and it is rare for a ballot question to ask voters to weigh in on two issues.