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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, August 18, 2004


Candidates must offer vision for city, too

By David Shapiro

It seems the first legacy Jeremy Harris is leaving behind after 10 years as Honolulu's mayor is to give vision a bad name.

Harris has cast himself as an urban oracle, promoting sophisticated theories of sustainable city growth that have made him a popular speaker at prestigious municipal planning conferences around the world.

He put "visioning" teams to work all over O'ahu to plot thriving futures for our unique communities.

His annual State of the City speeches have been eloquent blueprints of the model American city he would have Honolulu become.

The trouble is that along the way to his grand visions, Harris forgot about a couple of little things called roads and sewers.

His visionary patter wore thin among fellow politicians and some constituents, who accused the mayor of running up huge budget deficits to finance monuments to his political ambitions while neglecting basic infrastructure.

It didn't help that the most visible work of his visioning teams was overpriced neighborhood markers that gave residents the one bit of information they knew — where they lived.

The two leading candidates to succeed Harris, former councilmen Mufi Hannemann and Duke Bainum, are staying far away from vision issues, preferring to focus their campaigns on a return to "core services."

Their catch phrases all carry the same message — back to basics.

Hannemann vaguely promises to support "need-to-have projects, not nice-to-have projects," as if differentiation between the two is a snap in a body politic as contentious as ours.

Bainum gives a subterranean twist to the mixed metaphor with his promise of "a road map on how we're going to fix our sewers."

Former Mayor Frank Fasi, a long-shot candidate, takes a stab at appealing to the vision crowd by proposing a resort casino on Midway Island for city financing, but he, too, wants to finance infrastructure.

With major candidates in essential agreement on issues that are inherently uninteresting, we'd be lucky to get a voter turnout of 32 percent if there wasn't a presidential election to pull in an electorate.

The criticism of Harris isn't entirely fair. A city is more than roads and sewers. Economic vitality, urban character and quality of life are also "need-to-have."

Harris' most criticized projects — Waikiki beautification, Sunsets on the Beach, the Waipi'o soccer complex — all addressed these important needs.

The City Council, which included Hannemann and Bainum for much of Harris' term, mostly went along with the mayor's spending priorities.

One area where they differed — public employee pay raises — is a major contributor to the budget deficit.

Harris opposed raises in a tight economy while council members enacted them as "need-to-have" because of the political support they receive from public worker unions.

Harris has stumbled on style more than substance.

The thing about master planning is that there can be only one master — and Harris has obsessively controlled the process, with little patience for building consensus in the community of parochial concerns.

The beautification of Kuhio Avenue and the Ala Wai in Waikiki, for instance, are worthy projects to refresh the aging tourism plant that drives Hawai'i's economy.

But instead of working with residents and businesses to address traffic and parking worries, Harris used the full power of the mayor's office to bulldoze the projects through his way.

Politics runs in cycles, and perhaps it's time to focus on our community's basic foundation.

But we'll be sorry if we let candidates turn the mayoral election into a sewer referendum without making them offer visions of the city they'd build atop their precious infrastructure.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by email at dave@volcanicash.net.