Sunday, February 4, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 4, 2001

Mansho's actions under scrutiny

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser City Hall Writer

MANSHO: Civic work, council duties may clash
A week before Christmas, City Councilwoman Rene Mansho rushed into City Hall, parking her well-known electric car on Punchbowl Street in a red zone that fronts a fire hydrant. She walked away and went about her business.

Someone who saw her snapped several photographs and mailed them to the Advertiser. Shown the photographs, Mansho acknowledged parking illegally but said it was no big deal.

"I only did it a couple of times," Mansho said. "I did it to just drop off. I don’t leave it there all day." She said she usually parks for free at a metered stall, which is permitted for electric vehicles as an incentive for more people to drive them.

In itself, a City Council member parking illegally can be explained as a momentary lapse of judgment. But many see Mansho’s actions as part of a larger and more serious pattern of problems that go far beyond parking:

Three government agencies, including the FBI, have been investigating allegations that Mansho has misused her political office and campaign money, charges she denies.

The state Campaign Spending Commission and the city Ethics Commission are investigating whether she improperly used her campaign money and her city position to help promote "Aloha Boat Days." That program welcomes cruise ships to Honolulu Harbor with live music, flower lei and streamers in a nostalgic reminder of the heyday of boat arrivals of the past.

Campaign spending officials also have questioned Mansho’s expenditures of tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money on travel, credit cards and telephones. And the FBI has questioned Mansho employees, who declined to reveal the details of the investigation.

Mansho last year turned in the electric car briefly after the Ethics Commission recommended she pull the plug on the bargain lease she was getting while acting as a spokeswoman for the company. To end the conflict, she arranged to buy the vehicle.

In March 1999, Mansho drew the criticism of the citizens watchdog group Common Cause Hawaii when the cruise-ship industry paid her way to a Miami convention at the same time she was pushing through a proposal to have the city’s Royal Hawaiian Band play for free at the nostalgic "boat days" dockside festivities.

Her powerful role as the council’s budget chairwoman also has come under scrutiny. At a meeting last month, she spent nearly an hour asking people to provide a monthly "good news" update about upbeat economic items, leaving the committee little time to discuss the already controversial $73 million supplemental budget.

She then recessed the meeting without hearing testimony of six people who had signed up, reconvened to hold a vote, only to have city attorneys rule later that the vote taken was invalid.

Council member Steve Holmes said Mansho’s actions left other Council members feeling that "she’s on probation" in her role as budget chairwoman.

At the same meeting, Mansho assured Holmes that money for a park at Heeia Kea was in the budget, only to find that it wasn’t, leaving him to scramble to get it restored at the last minute.

Holmes said such behavior leaves other council members concerned. "It’s a position based on trust, and if behavior is erratic, that implies a loss of trust."

Mansho, 51, had a colorful image even before she started driving around town in the electric car that looks like a plush golf cart. She usually dresses in a bright muumuu and pushed for city employees to use aloha as an official telephone greeting.

Her own office voice mail message reminds callers to "share aloha every day."

Mansho, a teacher by training, was elected to the Council in 1988 after three Council members quit to run for mayor. She campaigned as a supporter of controlled growth, vowing to seek traffic relief and to help provide more affordable housing.

Since then, she has led nearly every committee on the Council. She has argued for limited growth on the North Shore, been a big backer of nurturing the cruise-ship industry, supported campaigns to encourage aloha and support local businesses, and is a constant presence at community events throughout her council district.

Recently, she has lobbied for the city to buy Waimea Valley, which includes a scenic waterfall, botanical garden and various cultural sites.

But some of her positions along the way have perplexed even her biggest fans, such as her 1992 swing vote that killed a plan to raise the state excise tax to pay for a public transit system. The project had been backed by many in her community as a way to ease growing traffic jams.

A little more than a year ago, she introduced a resolution urging state lawmakers to oppose fluoridation of Honolulu’s drinking water. Five years earlier, she had urged her colleagues to support it. Mansho sees no contradiction in her actions, because she said she listened to the will of her community on each proposal.

Some community members say she has survived because she shows unrelenting commitment, appearing at public meetings and winning support for projects in her Council District I, which stretches from Waipio, Village Park and Mililani through Wahiawa out to the North Shore.

Roy Doi, chairman of the Mililani Mauka/Launani Valley Neighborhood Board, said Mansho delivers in getting pork-barrel projects for the community. "She does bring a lot of money back to our area."

Doi said that Mansho is open to advice and suggestions, even to the point where she introduces proposals just to allow them a chance for discussion.

"I think Rene has been pretty effective for the district," Doi said. But sometimes he also has seen her take approaches or make decisions that she later changes. "I wish Rene would think more about what she’s doing and how she does it."

Mansho also is popular because of her friendly and outgoing personality. She’s easily voted the council member most likely to greet everyone in a room, often with a kiss and by name. But she grates on others with the habit of often enunciating each syllable of every word, like a schoolteacher lecturing her pupils.

Even in the glare of controversy, she remains available to answer questions, even when the answers may be embarrassing.

People in the community see her doing things they like: singing karaoke, visiting Las Vegas like a local tourist, and being a relentless cheerleader for Hawaii and the local economy. And because she comes across like one of the neighbors, they also seem ready to look past a judgment lapse now and then.

At last year’s Gridiron show, a cast assembled by the Society of Professional Journalists poked fun through song spoofs of various issues in the news. An entire medley was devoted to Mansho. Rather than act offended, she arranged to have her electric car driven onto the stage at Diamond Head Theater and then made cameo appearances on both nights of the benefit.

But for all her charm, some say Mansho’s ability to attract controversy does not serve her well, especially in a powerful council position that allows her to shape the city’s finances.

Mansho proved a key supporter for electing Jon Yoshimura as City Council chairman. He said the controversies are serious enough that he and other colleagues have talked to her about the problems.

Yoshimura said that he believes Mansho has the potential to overcome the controversy if she wants to work at it. "I think that a lot of us are pulling for Rene," he said, "but in the end it’s up to her to resolve some of these issues."

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