Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 3, 2005

Outdoor Circle grows

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Outdoor Circle, founded by the wives of Hawai'i power brokers and best known for eliminating billboards in the Islands 78 years ago, has quietly diversified its membership and last month began a new era under the leadership of the former mayor of Houston, a city where billboards once ran rampant.

Kathy Whitmire, the former mayor of Houston, took over as volunteer president of the Outdoor Circle's board of directors on June 1. She believes fighting visual blight will help keep the tourism industry strong.

Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

"The organization knew on some level that to survive and attract new people, this is the direction they needed to take," said Mary Steiner, chief executive of the nonprofit, 3,500-member group. "We're very well aware of the Outdoor Circle's reputation: Little old haole ladies in tennis sneakers who chain themselves to trees — women who were married to wealthy, prominent men in the state."

Kathy Whitmire took over as the volunteer president of the Outdoor Circle's board of directors on June 1 with an attitude she believes will work well for both Hawai'i's environment and its economy.

"An environment free of visual blight is not anti-business," Whitmire said. "Having a good visual environment is good business. It's in everybody's economic interest to keep Hawai'i a beautiful place."

Whitmire calls her former Houston hometown "the billboard capital of the world," which still lives with billboards more than a decade after passing anti-billboard legislation.

So Whitmire believes that an Island economy driven by tourism eventually will lose visitors who are "assaulted by advertising," Whitmire said. "It's a short-sighted idea to keep putting up visual pollution."

While local branches on every island will continue to fight neighborhood battles, the Outdoor Circle's central office on King Street has targeted a handful of projects: Fighting to preserve trees and landscaping during Hawai'i's construction boom; burying overhead utility lines; keeping the skies free of aerial advertising; and a new concern: roaming trucks that can bear as many as 12 revolving ads.

Kathy Whitmire

Title: President, Outdoor Circle's board of directors

Age: 58

Residence: Hau'ula

Family: Married to Alan Wehmer

Background: Born and raised in a blue-collar suburb of Houston where her father worked as an electrical contractor and her mother worked on an electronics assembly line.

Professional history: Houston controller; Houston mayor, 1982-1992. Served on faculties of Rice University, Harvard University and University of Maryland

In more than a decade, the Outdoor Circle has filed only two lawsuits and one friend-of-the-court brief. Instead, the group prefers to work behind the scenes and get involved with issues from the beginning, instead of railing against projects that are already completed.

"We want to make it so developers, businesses and corporations aren't so afraid of us," Steiner said.

But the leaders of the Outdoor Circle remain willing to whip up public sentiment to oppose plans, signs and advertising they don't like — especially ones they feel run against the spirit of the state's anti-billboard law.

Admobile Hawai'i, for instance, began driving through downtown and Waikiki in May, offering rotating advertising on the four sides of its panel truck. "It's an end run around what the people of this state say they don't want," Steiner said.

The Outdoor Circle receives calls every day complaining about the Admobile, Steiner said. Until it figures out a strategy to get it removed, Steiner said, the Outdoor Circle encourages callers to make their feelings known to the Admobile — and to its advertisers who pay for the service.

Beth Vaughan, manager of Admobile Hawaii, was stunned to hear that the locally owned and operated franchise offended the Outdoor Circle.

"We're not blocking any of the beautiful scenery here," Vaughan said. "This is free speech. ...We're perfectly legal and we're on sound ground. There's nothing about our operation that is illegal."

In an e-mail, Vaughan later wrote, "We have had a 'few calls' expressing 'community concerns' regarding our products and intentions. We have taken the time to personally answer each and every one of these questions and concerns."

Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawai'i will evaluate whether to continue using Admobile Hawaii after receiving one complaint about its MADD ad last week on the truck, said Connie Abram, MADD Hawai'i's executive director.

"We weren't intending to ruffle any feathers," Abram said. "It certainly wasn't our intention to violate any billboard laws. We simply were taking advantage of an opportunity to keep MADD's message out there in the community so we can continue to remind people of the dangers of drunk driving."

"It's in everybody's economic interest to keep Hawai'i a beautiful place," said Kathy Whitmire, Outdoor Circle's new volunteer president. "It's a short-sighted idea to keep putting up visual pollution."

Advertiser library photo

A decision on whether to continue MADD's year-long Admobile contract could be made within a month, Abram said.

Several businesses that have battled the Outdoor Circle in the past declined to comment on the group's influence.

But Hawaiian Electric Co. spokesman Chuck Freedman said, "They do have their clout."

The Outdoor Circle joined other groups in successfully lobbying the state land board in 2002 to prohibit HECO from adding a power line along Wa'ahila Ridge. But HECO also works with the Outdoor Circle on other projects, such as HECO's "right tree in the right place" program to encourage homeowners to plant shade trees that will save energy while preventing root structures from disrupting water lines and underground utility cables.

"There certainly have been times when we've differed," Freedman said. "But we do have — no pun intended — common ground in other areas, such as seeing more trees that are not only beautiful but can be used for conservation purposes."

The Outdoor Circle also has been consulted on plans by private developers to build and refurbish 15,000 military homes on O'ahu.

"Because of their high profile role in the community and the work that they do, we'd certainly like to have them on our side," said Wendy Truer, urban design manager for Actus Lend Lease, which will work on nearly 8,000 homes for the Army.

One project alone on the current Schofield Barracks golf course will mean sacrificing an unknown number of monkeypods, Norfolk island pines, banyans, silk oaks, ironwoods, figs, african tulips and ear pods — some of them 90 years old.

Some of the trees are simply too old, too big or too dangerous to keep near new homes and families, Truer said.

Truer has worked with Steiner and other Outdoor Circle people and said, "They know what they're talking about. They know what their objectives are, but they're also reasonable and understating of what our objectives are. They want to be informed and we've tried to be honest in our dealings with them."

When Steiner was hired as the group's first paid CEO 13 years ago, almost every one of the board's 33 members was a woman and the average age was "70-plus," Steiner said.

The group had began recruiting younger women — and men — since, but got help last year when Whitmire took over as the Outdoor Circle's membership chairwoman.

Outdoor Circle has been hearing complaints about Admobile but has not yet developed a strategy for halting it.

Outdoor Circle Society

The board is now an even split between men and women, ranging in age from early 30s to 82. The average age is now in the low 50s.

Steiner hopes that Whitmire's growing influence in the Outdoor Circle will raise its public profile even higher and make the group even more effective.

Whitmire was 35 years old when she was elected to the first of five consecutive, two-year terms — tying a Houston record for mayoral longevity — as the city struggled financially and socially when the Texas oil industry declined.

Back in the 1980s, before the first of several career and fashion makeovers, Whitmire wore oversized glasses and a teased bobbed hairdo that gave her the nickname "Tootsie" after the Dustin Hoffman movie about a man posing as a woman.

Whitmire appealed to moderate liberals and gays, Hispanics and blacks, who were often the targets of Houston police brutality. Her financial background and four years as Houston's controller impressed enough other voters for Whitmire to defeat her main opponent, the sheriff of Harris County, Jack Heard.

"Here was this elfin, small blonde type going up against this big, gruff sheriff," said Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy. "She weighed 85, maybe 90 pounds, and he was this cartoon character of 250 pounds. He wouldn't debate her so Whitmire had this line, 'Why don't you come out and fight, Jack?' "

Outdoor Circle

Members: 3,500 in 14 branches on four islands

Annual operating budget: $375,000

Founded: 1912 by Mrs. Frederick J. (Cherilla) Lowrey, Frances Lawrence, Mrs. Charles M. (Anna Rice) Cooke, Mrs. Henry (Ida) Waterhouse, Mr. George (Laura) Sherman, Mrs. Isaac M. (Catharine) Cox and Kulamanu Ward.

Mission: To protect Hawai'i's scenic environment by advocating for the planting and protection of trees, burying of utility lines, promoting recycling and fighting for a billboard-free Hawai'i, among other issues.

Headquarters: 1314 S. King St., Suite 306.

Phone: 593-0300

Web address: www.outdoorcircle.org

As mayor from 1982 to 1992, Whitmire hired the city's first African American police chief and added more women and minorities to city hall, Murray said.

"She broke up the good-old-boy network of older white males that, pretty much behind the scenes, exercised inordinate power and steered contracts to their buddies," Murray said. "Most people would give her high marks for honesty, running the city during some very tough fiscal times."

Tim Fleck, an editorial writer with the Houston Chronicle who covered Whitmire as a radio reporter and for Houston's alternative weekly newspaper, called her a "landmark figure in Houston."

"She is still viewed as having a very honest, clean administration," Fleck said. "She's incredibly driven and idealistic and has very good ideas about the environment and maintaining a very livable environment."

But Whitmire's idealism could quickly turn to anger, Fleck said.

"I have had her furious with me, and it's not something you want to have happen," Fleck said. "She's just cold as ice, voice like a razor. She's a tough lady when she gets angry."

After she was defeated in her run for a sixth term, Whitmire joined the faculties of Rice University, Harvard University and the University of Maryland and served on various foundations, corporations and nonprofit organizations — including the board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange.

Whitmire also served on the board of Scenic America, where Steiner first heard about her.

When Whitmire and her husband moved to O'ahu in 2001, Steiner said, "I was told she was coming to Hawai'i and I needed to find her."

Board member Alan Fujimori, a 55-year-old landscape architect planner, remembers Whitmire's first presentation before the entire board in February as membership chairwoman.

"In one meeting she pulled it all together," Fujimori said. "She's very articulate. She speaks in a very direct manner, but in a very nonthreatening way. She was able to demonstrate her skills as a leader by drawing out from the audience important topics (while) being able to consolidate them and give them some focus, all on her feet. ... She gives credit to people who make suggestions so it's an inclusive process."

Along with Whitmire, new members such as Denise Soderholm, 40, represent the next generation of Outdoor Circle members.

Soderholm readily admits that she joined the Outdoor Circle as treasurer last year simply to appease her mother-in-law, Jane Morris, who has been with the Outdoor Circle since statehood.

"I knew it was a bunch of old haole ladies who fought billboards," Soderholm said. "When I went to my first meeting I thought it was going to be like a quilting circle. But they were a lot younger and there were far more many men than I thought I would ever see."

Now, Soderholm has a renewed attitude toward preserving Hawai'i's scenery.

"If you live in this beautiful place," she said, "it's your job to help protect it."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8085.