City's budget mailings to public challenged
|||See various versions of the city's letters|
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser City Hall Writer
The unprecedented use of 10,000 targeted mailings by city officials to community interest groups has put enormous pressure on the Honolulu City Council to restore some of the budget cuts they will consider today at a hearing expected to draw hundreds of people.
The use of the letters, sent at a cost of more than $3,400, is being questioned by some council and community members who say the effort amounts essentially to having city administrators lobbying elected officials at taxpayers' expense.
The letters represent the latest skirmish in the increasingly bitter budget battle between the administration of Mayor Jeremy Harris and the City Council under Chairman John DeSoto and Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi.
"It doesn't seem right to use taxpayers' money to support one position against another part of government," Kobayashi said. "It's very unusual."
There are at least 10 versions of the letter, with the first paragraph tailored to address a specific concern or interest of the recipient.
For example, city parks and recreation director William Balfour sent out letters targeted to tennis players "Dear Tennis Enthusiast" and others to supporters of baseball, softball, rugby, ballroom dancing and soccer. Emergency services director Salvatore Lanzilotti wrote to downtown community members. Economic development director Manuel Menendez wrote to "Aiea-Pearl Sunset in the Park" participants.
The largest number of letters were sent by planning and permitting director Randall Fujiki, who signed letters that went out to community vision teams and neighborhood boards. The letters went out with 34-cent stamps on them. City Managing Director Ben Lee earlier estimated that at least 10,000 letters had been sent.
Yesterday Lee said he did not have an exact figure, because some of the letters were mailed by the concerned groups and not by the city administration.
"We asked them to help us send copies to their membership," he said. For example, the president of the Hawai'i Pacific section of the United States Tennis Association sent letters to USTA members in Honolulu, asking them to support construction of a tennis center at the Central O'ahu Regional Park.
Lee said there was nothing wrong with sending letters that support the administration's position on projects widely supported in the community. "The administration has (previously) advocated for positions such as rapid transit," he said.
Richard Rowland, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawai'i, is complaining about the letters to the council. "Is it acceptable for the administration to launch a frontal attack on the City Council for exercising their oversight function?" he said.
"I think it's misuse of public funds. I don't think they have any business using my money to lobby," Rowland said.
City Ethics Commission executive director Chuck Totto confirmed he was investigating a complaint about the letters.
Kobayashi said that beyond the expense she is concerned by "all the hours spent getting these mailings ready."
Lee said the letters didn't take that much time to produce because only the first paragraph was targeted to specific mailing lists.
Kobayashi also said some of the letters misled, telling residents projects might be cut that are not even targeted for reduction by the council. "Many of them say your projects are being cut, when we've repeatedly said that vision team and neighborhood board projects will not be cut," she said.
Lee said the administration feels obligated to tell people about potential cuts, because they don't know yet what final form the budget will take. The $1.2 billion operating budget and $400 millioniplus construction budgets are scheduled to be approved in a final vote by the council on May 29.
Harris has said his spending plan is responsible and makes strategic investments in the city's infrastructure without raising taxes. Some council members, led by Kobayashi, have said they would rather cut certain spending programs and construction projects than borrow more money or take money from special funds, like sewer fees, as Harris has suggested.
Kobayashi acknowledged that the budget had not yet been finalized. "We're still getting bombarded by the administration, but I'm trying to stand firm," she said.
So far, more than 180 people have signed up to testify today before the City Council budget committee. The hearing starts at 9 a.m. at Honolulu Hale.
Lee also defended a decision to invite more than 150 people tied to the community vision teams to a meeting at the Neal Blaisdell Center last week to talk about the budget cuts and encourage people to tell the council about their objections.
About 100 people parked for free when the city waived the $3 fee. Lee said that had been done for other city-related meetings in the past. He said he had barred a television crew from attending because he believed people would be intimidated by its presence, be less frank about their opinions and might not want to be seen at a meeting with the administration.
Reach Robbie Dingeman at email@example.com or 525-8070.