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Friday, April 14, 2000

The Money Man

Roy Amemiya Jr., the city's
budget director, has restored
civility to the budget process,
say most Council members

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


There was a time when budget season at Honolulu Hale meant bitter skirmishes between the City Council and Malcolm Tom, Mayor Jeremy Harris' colorful budget director once accused of using "smoke and mirrors" when it came to city funds.

But halfway into this year's proceedings on the $1 billion budget that funds the city's operations, the shouting matches of recent years have been replaced by bliss and harmony.

A large part of that can be attributed to Roy Amemiya Jr., who became director of budget and fiscal services last year following the merger of the finance and budget departments. In his new position, he became the administration's point man in the budget process.

Members of the Council majority credit Amemiya -- a soft-spoken, lifelong banker -- with restoring respect, civility and confidence to the budget process, which continues through May.

When Councilman Duke Bainum was budget chairman, he clashed often with Tom.

Now, he said, even when he disagrees with the administration -- on its raiding of the HPOWER fund to help balance the budget, for example -- Amemiya makes it easier to swallow.

"He expressed his viewpoint on why they were doing it but didn't pretend we weren't doing it," Bainum said. "Some would have been tempted to say we're not doing that or say it's not what it appears to be."

'Simplifies the issues'

Councilman John Henry Felix, who chaired the Budget Committee the previous two go-arounds, said that while he got along with Tom, the former budget chief "irritated some members of the Council with his, what appeared to be, convoluted answers."

Amemiya, he said, "simplifies the issues, whereas some of Malcolm's presentations tended to be arcane."

Amemiya attributed his ability to cooperate to growing up in Whitmore Village, in the thick of the Dole Pineapple Plantation.

"On a plantation, everybody has to pitch in together, neighbors have to be neighborly," Amemiya said. "You need to be able to run out and take someone's clothes off their clothesline when it rains and they're not home, share your vegetables, share your catch."

Amemiya's father, Keiji "Roy" Amemiya, began working as a laborer for Dole Pineapple Plantation at 16 and retired from the company more than four decades later as its superintendent of budget and accounting.

After college, Amemiya went to work with the late Sen. Donald Ching, a family friend, as a legislative assistant during the 1977 legislative session.

He joined Bank of Hawaii, for which Ching also worked, and by the age of 31 was a vice president. When he left the bank in 1996 to work for the city, he was vice president of small business banking.

"I think the level of respect he's gained, in addition to his performance, is because he's a banker," said Councilwoman Rene Mansho, who now heads the Budget Committee. "A lot of times things are done emotionally or politically."

"He's a very fair person," said Manny Valbuena, Amemiya's deputy director for several years and now deputy of human services. Valbuena, who was approached first about joining the Harris administration, suggested Amemiya, his fellow Bank of Hawaii vice president, to the mayor.

Amemiya had not been formally involved in government for 20 years, but he was on the fringes. He was campaign treasurer for Sen. Randall Iwase, a brother-in-law, in his runs for Council and then the Legislature.

Quiet but steadfast

Amemiya, for the most part, worked quietly in the shadow of the controversial Tom during the first two years as finance director.

He first turned heads at City Hall, however, in 1998 when allegations were raised that Tom had tried to pressure property assessors into raising appraisals to generate more money for the city.

Assessors credited Amemiya with holding firm and fending off Tom.

And in a letter dated March 22 that was leaked to the news media, Amemiya took Design and Construction Director Gary Yee to task for allowing a contractor to work before a contract was completed.

Amemiya and other members of the administration play down the incidents and say there are differences in any organization.

Not everyone, however, is impressed with Amemiya's performance at City Hall.

"He's been more a yes man for the mayor instead of providing the city and Council with constructive and meaningful, insightful explanations to the budget," said Councilwoman Donna Mercado Kim, a perennial critic of the Harris administration.

Kim said she suspects that former budget director Tom, now Harris' deputy managing director, still has a heavy influence on the budget proceedings.

Councilman Mufi Hannemann, who is challenging Harris for the mayor's job in this fall's election, agreed, adding that he thinks both Tom and Managing Director Ben Lee call the shots on budget matters.

"He needs to act independent of them," Hannemann said, but generally, "he's much more credible because he's not Malcolm and he's not Ben."

Amemiya highlights

Bullet Name: Roy Amemiya Jr.
Bullet Age: 44
Bullet Position: Director, Department of Budget and Fiscal Services
Bullet Previous position: Vice president/manager, small business banking, Bank of Hawaii
Bullet Education: Leilehua High School, Purdue University (B.S., industrial management), University of Hawaii-Manoa (MBA, finance)
Bullet Hobbies: Gardening, golf
Bullet Well-known relatives: Ronald Amemiya, uncle, state attorney general under former Gov. George Ariyoshi; Corinne Watanabe, sister, associate justice, Hawaii Court of Appeals; Keith Amemiya, cousin and Ronald's son, executive director, Hawaii High School Athletics Association; and state Sen. Randall Iwase, brother-in-law

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