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L to R: Carlisle and city EV; on a building site; signing the city’s Bag Bill while Councilwoman Tulsi Gabbard looks on.
Image: Tina Lau matthew kain

For now, Mayor Carlisle has a job to do--and he plans to keep doing it

Given the city’s crumbling infrastructure and rail controversy, it’s hard to believe anyone would want to be the next mayor of Honolulu. But a few do want the job, including the incumbent, Mayor Peter Carlisle, the former Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney who won a 2010 special election to fill the remainder of Mufi Hannemann’s term.

The Weekly caught up with Carlisle at his campaign headquarters to ask him about some key issues.

With all these high-level stressors coming together–the rail, development pressures, agricultural concerns–why do you want to continue on?

This is a great job. It definitely is a rollercoaster ride. … But this is a terrific job, and right now is a really good time to get to be the mayor because there are so many interesting issues. [W]e’re really at sort of a crossroads, where there’s going to be this tipping point between are we going to go into the future or will we be mired in the past, which hasn’t been successful. From my perspective, I would be happy to be with those people who are moving towards the direction that the island needs to go in.

So you consider all these big issues a welcome challenge?

I think of it more as opportunity. There’s a chance for a real urban renaissance in my opinion. To be a part of that–and that’s all I would be, a part of it–would be very exciting, and something that if it’s done right you can be proud of.

Do you feel any pressures coming off of these development fast-track bills moving through the legislature?

I have to look at those more when they come out to find out what the plusses and minuses are. You do want to make sure there are checks and balances, but by the same token, you don’t want to get lost in hopeless bureaucracy and make [things] occur in 20 months when [they] could occur sensibly in a couple of months. So you have to take a look [and decide] what is red tape? What is a rule that makes no sense anymore? But by the same token, you never want to compromise safety nor certain critical aspects of the environment.

What is your style of administration?

The two most absolutely hopeless types of managers are those who [seek] total power and control, and the micromanager. I genuinely believe the job is to set the environment that will allow people who are very good at what they do to thrive and be creative and be capable. And when you give them the right direction they will go in that direction.

Crime in Chinatown has become a hot-button issue due to some recent incidents.

I’ve noticed that but I’d have to look at the overall trend. When your numbers are as low as ours are with murder rates, it can take just two or three murders and suddenly you’ve got what looks like a spike. You really need to take a look at what the overall crime rates are in the different categories and [whether] you are really seeing something different or is this just a couple of isolated incidents. Ever since the days of World War II [Chinatown and the Hotel Street area have] had a sort of Wild West reputation, [but] I have seen, in my opinion, a whole lot of movement in the right direction in Chinatown.

So is the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) taking any further steps–like, from your lips to their ears–to secure that area of drug-related crime?

I leave that to them. My job when I was the prosecutor wasn’t to tell the police department how to do their business. On the other hand, since I do have a law enforcement background, I certainly wouldn’t be shy about asking the chief or other people about things.

What ways is the city working to help get our homeless residents the help they need?

There used to be this idea that homelessness was not a City and County problem, it’s entirely a state problem, and I don’t agree with that thinking. Clearly, we’re the enforcement arm of a lot of things that are being done, when parks aren’t being used correctly, when property is improperly stored and when it becomes a problem for our economic engine, which is tourism. Certainly, we have a lot of people who are sickly, unhealthy, unclean, who urinate and defecate all over the place. Those are the types of things you can’t tolerate in an area of tourist activity and not expect to tarnish your light as a tourist destination.

Are services offered to the homeless when these “sweeps” are done?

Absolutely and unequivocally. We believe that it’s critical to go in there with people who can offer assistance. Some people can be recently homeless and they have a family and they just don’t know which way to turn. If they want to get a job, then those are the kinds of people who you can really turn around if you can give them transitional housing, if you can retool them by educating them, if you can get them back in a job and back on their feet. [Then] you’ve got the people who are mentally ill. The people who’ve got the addictions whether it’s alcohol, drugs or methamphetamine. And then you’ve got the other types of people who just want to be homeless.

What kinds of steps have you taken to support our local agriculture?

The City Council [offered to fund] a position for an agricultural advocate, a liaison, in the mayor’s office. We hired a young lady by the name of Laura Thielen. She has done just a bang-up job with assisting us in getting a lot of the players from agriculture together in a room. Discussing what needs to be done–not just looking at the traditional stuff,but urban agricultural up in the air, on roofs and stuff like that. … Since 1978, we were supposed to start designating important agricultural land. We’re actually in the process of doing that.

Who is involved in that process?

There isn’t anyone who’s been formalized yet, but there are people starting to talk about these issues together–the big agricultural players, the people that actually own the land and the farmers. That’s what we’re looking for, to see how we can get each one of those groups’ concerns properly addressed in an overall picture that would give us the type of sustainable agriculture that we want. One thing that is abundantly clear is that whatever we grow here, we can sell, and we can sell it here.

How long do you think it will take to choose a new landfill site? Do you think we’ve maybe waited a little too long to get this process moving?

I think we’ve probably waited too long already, [but] no matter who thinks the landfill is coming in their direction, they’re going to be screaming bloody murder. Everybody is going to come with those types of discussions, and rightly so. So we’re going to need to listen to a lot of people on this, we’re going to have to look at a lot of evidence, we’re going to have to think very clearly on it and then make some sort of decision at some point. This is simply a recommendation, and now we have to do the hard work of going through and figuring out exactly what makes the most sense, and, have we given everybody their peace of mind.

Can you touch on some of the details of the city’s current sewer upgrade plans?

The sewer systems are all under a consent decree. There is close to a billion dollars already poured into it to get us to the position where we now [no longer have] fines being leveled on us because we were not up to where we needed to be in terms of our sewer capacities and our maintenance. We’re under the court’s supervision and so far not only have we met the [consent decree] requirements, but we’ve exceeded them in some regards as well. But this is going to be a long process. It’s not something that’s going to be done overnight because you couldn’t afford to do it overnight.

What about all these potholes? Are you working on that?

Absolutely and unequivocally yes. The old system used to be to wait until it’s absolutely falling apart, and then you fix it. So, once you had a road that qualified, you would go in and completely redo it–and rebuilding a road comes out to about a million dollars per lane mile. The next best thing, which is a mill-and-fill, is still sufficient and capable of being used. That reduces [the cost] down to about $100,000 per lane mile. Most of the stuff that we find that we have to do in the short time that we’ve been here, which is about a year and a half, is to stop building more and start maintaining what we have.

So why not a more aggressive Capital Improvement Plan (CIP)?

An aggressive CIP, most of the time you’re doing it by debt financing, and we do not want–under any circumstances–to take a precarious financial situation and make it worse. You’re hearing about cities across the country declaring bankruptcy. We certainly don’t want Honolulu to get there because we have really good bond ratings.

So would debt from the rail project cause you to have to tighten up the purse strings in regards to capital improvements?

Right now, there is no rail debt. At some point we’ll get to where the construction and material costs will exceed the GET funds, that’s been anticipated. Then what you’re going to need to do is stop-gap financing, which will be a short-term issue rather than a debt that would last 10, 20 or 30 years. It will last during the period of construction. Then a couple years after that, there’s going to be no debt at all.

What obstacles are there to getting more support from the public on rail?

I think that there’s an entrenched group of people who believe that this is the wrong thing to do and they’re afraid that it’s going to cost too much. Or [they’re] too old and not going to be using it, so don’t want to have to pay for it. [But] the buses are subsidized substantially by the taxpayers, and there are plenty of people who don’t ride buses. Subsidizing public transportation and subsidizing infrastructure that’s critical to commerce, to growth, those are things that government is supposed to do. And in the long run, it’s going to be the transit-oriented development around rail that’s going to be the engine for our economic success in the future.

The proposed Hoopili project–you’re on board with that?

We don’t give yes or nos to particular projects. What we do is figure out whether or not they have abided by the code and then the project moves forward. But is that the type of transit-oriented development and value that’s added to land that translates into higher real estate property taxes and people spending money around rail stations, [which] could enhance the GET tax projections– are those things that can be anticipated? Yes, they can be.

Say federal funding doesn’t come through for rail. Do you still build it?

Of course, we’re required to.

Where do you get that $1.5 billion?

For one thing, it might not be the same rail system. We might not go as far as anticipated. There’s four phases, we could stop at the third. We could use all sorts of different efforts at value engineering that to figure out what could be done. Perhaps we wouldn’t build as many stations. But, the mandate in the city charter isn’t contingent upon getting federal funds. So is it possible to build without [federal funds], yes. If you’re going to follow the city charter–which everybody who takes the oath of office for mayor is required to do–then you would still have to have a steel-wheel-on-steel rail system that shall be developed and built by the person that is the head of the Department of Transportation services.

What are the odds of the GET tax being extended?

I think what you really need to be talking about is what are the odds of us not getting the federal funding? I think I’m going to believe [Sen.] Dan Inouye. He said that the only thing that will stop us from getting the federal funds is World War III.

Realistically, we’re going to get that money, and we’re going to get it before the end of the year.

What if, in federal court, rail is halted? You’ve got $800 million in it.

What happens if the moon falls into the ocean? Why are you asking me to give you something that is pure speculation?

These are questions some people have on their minds …

People are asking them, and they’re being fueled by the people who don’t want rail. And they’re coming up with these ideas that rail is going to bankrupt the city. It’s not going to bankrupt the city. If anyone was actually capable of stopping rail, we would be in lawsuits from now until doomsday [brought by] all the people …who are under contract with us. They have clauses [addressing] voluntary withdrawal from the contract. They get damages.

What would you like to say to any Honolulu residents who are hesitant about rail or feel it has been rushed along?

Rushed along? This has been going on for 40 years! Every day of delay is money wasted. Now that we’re finally in the process of building it, we’re going to build it as quickly as we can as long as we’re safe with it.

Maybe people just have some sort of buyer’s remorse about the whole thing …

I think you’re right. I think when it’s finally getting done, it’s kind of like jumping into cold water. After a few minutes–when you’ve warmed up, started paddling–everything is fine. Then you get the ride of your life, and that’s what you’re going to get with a rail system that’s elevated.

Are there any issues you think the media is overlooking regarding the upcoming election?

I don’t know if everybody’s got a real grasp of just how transformative transit-oriented development is going to be. It’s going to change the entire landscape of urban Honolulu, and almost all for the better. Once you see how transit-oriented development works [in] places like . . . DC, you’re going to have a real good idea of just exactly how we can take sprawl, and uneven growth and confused neighborhoods, and revitalize them.