From visions to reality
By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Leidemann
The Honolulu vision teams may be gone, but their work is still being done.
City officials say at least 17 projects that originated under the old vision team initiative are either being built or planned. Almost all of the projects involve improvements to parks or recreation facilities around the island, according to Eugene Lee, director of the city's Department of Design and Construction.
The vision teams were started by former Mayor Jeremy Harris as a way to give more control of county money to local communities. However, by the time Harris left office in 2004, the teams had been heavily criticized and stripped of their $2 million a year funding. Then, incoming Mayor Mufi Hannemann ended them entirely.
That didn't mean that all the projects were canceled, however.
The new city administration evaluated the projects already in the pipeline and allowed many to continue, said city spokesman Mark Matsunaga.
The ongoing projects, worth millions of dollars, include construction of new canoe halau, comfort stations, ball fields, and other improvements to existing recreation facilities. Two traffic-related projects — including a new parking area for the Kane'ohe Civic Center and a study of Kamehameha Highway in Hale'iwa — also are on the list, Lee said.
Among the proposed vision team proposals missing from the list were minor landscaping and sidewalk improvements around the island, neighborhood signage and a project to better light outdoor artwork in Chinatown. Ma-tsunaga said those didn't meet Hannemann's "need to have" standard for funding under a tight budget.
WAS EFFORT WORTH IT?
Supporters said the vision teams offered a chance for residents to have a direct say in how money was spent in their communities; critics countered that the communities already had other, less expensive ways to accomplish the same thing.
"In Chinatown, we built new sidewalks, had new street and parking lot signs installed, and started a master planning project for Downtown Honolulu," said Stanford Yuen, a former vision team member. "We got a lot of little things done that wouldn't have come through the big infrastructure system."
At their peak in the late 1990s, 19 vision teams were given $2 million for their projects as a way to get more people involved in community planning.
But critics said the teams circumvented the City Council budgeting process, were heavily weighted toward design professionals and contractors, and often bypassed Neighborhood Boards, which were created by the City Charter to give citizens a more direct voice in their government.
"Sometimes we were designing things that would never get built," said City Councilman Gary Okino, who served on both the Pearl City and Waipahu teams. "They were nice-to-have projects, but not essential."
At one point, before funding was trimmed by Harris, the teams had more than 300 projects under way, some of which seemed to critics more frivolous than necessary. These included more than $400,000 spent to build and landscape two signs along Pali Highway welcoming people to Nu'u-anu, and another $150,000 sign project in Hawai'i Kai.
Another Hawai'i Kai project, a landscaping and traffic-calming project in the center of Lunalilo Home Road that was opposed by the Neighborhood Board, was partially removed by the Hannemann administration after repeated complaints from residents and businesses in the area that it caused more problems than it solved.
"We are better off without them," said City Councilman Charles Djou, referring to the vision teams. "They were a recipe for wasting taxpayers' resources."
While the vision teams weren't "entirely negative," most of the issues and concerns they raised could have been better handled through the normal city budgeting process, Djou said. "We could have done almost everything they did without creating a new bureaucratic monstrosity," he said.
Yuen feels the teams served a community purpose, but aren't needed anymore.
"I think we're OK for now," Yuen said. "Now, we're getting a lot more attention from the mayor and the city. It doesn't feel like we're being ignored any longer."
Reach Mike Leidemann at email@example.com.