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Honolulu Hale Sees Changes In New Year, But Challenges Remain The Same

Casey Harlow / HPR

The Honolulu City Council has seen several changes to start the New Year. While they give the Council a new appearance compared to previous years, its reponsibilities remain same – and so do its challenges.

A new administration and five new councilmembers started their new roles in Honolulu earlier this month. While new lawmakers and directors are getting acclimated to their new job, city business doesn't wait.

Last week, the new City Council held its first set of committee meetings – with some minor changes.

For instance, what used to be the zoning, planning and housing committee is now just zoning and planning. And the economic assistance and revitalization committee, created last year in response to the pandemic, has become the committee on housing and the economy.

Council Chair Tommy Waters says these kinds of changes are common in city government.

"For the most part, it's stayed the same. It's just slight changes, and that would be up to the fitting Chair to decide," Waters said. 

Waters says the responsibilities of the council committees may have been rearranged, but the same issues will still be discussed and addressed by councilmembers.

The executive matters committee is the latest addition to the council. 

According to Waters, who will be its chair, the committee will address issues relating to council policies, positions and rules.

He doesn't expect the new executive matters committee to meet often, but will be "catch all in the event that something comes up . . . and doesn't fit into any of the existing committees."

The assignment of councilmembers and leadership of committees is up to the Council Chair. As the Council Chair, Waters says he based his decisions by speaking to every councilmember about their interests.

"I think everybody was happy, and got what they wanted," Waters said. "Of course, the two big committees is budget, and planning and zoning. And if everyone had their way, they would all want to be those two chairs."

Waters chose Calvin Say to lead the city's budget committee, because of his previous experience as a former state House speaker and finance chair.

And Brandon Elefante was picked to lead the zoning and planning committee.

"He's been on the Council for six years. I thought he would be great on that committee," Waters said. "Brandon has a very, very strong passion for affordable housing."

There are still daunting challenges facing the new Council and administration. According to Waters, one of them is closing the city's $400 million budget shortfall.

"We do not want to lay off workers. We want to keep our folks on the job," he said. 

"How are we going to save money? How can we generate more revenues without raising taxes? I do not want to raise taxes, and I'm going to work [with] all my might to not raise taxes."

Other priorities include affordable housing and homelessness. 

Waters picked Esther Kia??ina to chair the council's committee on housing and the economy – which will be responsible in discussing efforts to address homelessness on Oahu.

"She had a passion for homelessness," he said. "She wanted that committee, and I said 'Please take it and I will work with you.' Because it's not just in my district there's a homelessness problem, it's all over the island, it's all over the state, and, quite frankly, it's all over the country."

"I know Esther is going to do a great job."

Waters acknowledged there are many more problems on O?ahu that need to be addressed. But for now, the city's budget, affordable housing and homelessness will be a focus at the Council.

"We need to roll up our sleeves and just work hard, and try to solve those problems we have."

The first full City Council meeting of the year will take place next week.

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