Rethinking reapportionment

A 1902 map of Oahu

Testimony to the reapportionment commission

Aloha Chair Aiona, Vice Chair Shigemasa, and members of the Reapportionment Commission. Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify.

I’d like to state in advance of my remarks that I am a candidate for City Council in 2022, so I am not an unbiased commentator on this issue. And I am satisfied generally with the outcome of your work and thank you for the hours that you’ve spent dealing with the question of the make-up of the council.

I wanted to speak today briefly to highlight the path that we’re not taking with respect to reapportionment. Which is that we have not considered at-large or multimember districts, and I understand that there are legal questions that might be preventing us from taking that route.

However we need to take note of the political and policy ramifications for us not considering these larger districts. I believe we’re all aware that we are one year, nine months and 28 days into the most important decade of our lives. This is the decisive decade where we need action on climate in order to forestall the inhabitability of our biosphere.

The next several city councils will have to consider very serious questions about climate equity and the distribution of risk and reward: who pays for the seawalls and the movement of housing from the oceans up into the mountains; how do we deal with the very real possibility that we will be facing food scarcity because of droughts in major agricultural regions such as Central Valley California. These are clear dangers which will become increasingly present as the decade progresses.

Your reapportionment work can play a key role in designing a future council system that is more inclusive of all interests.

We have a tendency in our local politics to think of the city council districts as small mayorships. As a professional courtesy, I in Kalihi would be reluctant to opine on what happens across the Koolaus in Kaneohe, or vice versa. But this is outmoded. We need to think about ourselves as an island. The island must be the unit of analysis. We have a finite series of resources but we can share them equitably if our political structures echoed our economic and ecological reality. We need island thinking, not Kalihi or Kaneohe-centric thinking. If we had that, we would be less willing to accept sacrifice zones, the communities that are required to give up their quality of life for the benefit of everyone else. It’s why Waianae has the landfills and the unexploded ordnance, Kahuku has the windmills, Kalaeloa and Kalihi have the industrial sites, and east Oahu has three Apple Stores in a four-mile radius. If the political class were equally accountable to all classes, I’d be more assured that we will be able to face the more turbulent politics of the late 2020s with an eye to both the kanaka nui, and the kanaka iki.

There are three criteria for this body:

  • No district shall be so drawn as to unduly favor a person or political faction.
  • Districts, insofar as practicable, shall be contiguous and compact.
  • District lines shall, where possible, follow permanent and easily recognized features and census boundaries

It doesn’t say that the districts can’t overlap.

So as an example, the commission could create six equally-apportioned seats corresponding roughly to the traditional Moku boundaries, and three at-large island-wide districts, to deal with the population imbalance among the six Moku provide an island-wide perspective. (This would be very similar to the districts designed by former City Clerk Raymond Pua when he created the apportionment plan for the 1999 Native Hawaiian Convention.)

The three at-large seats might be dominated by Honolulu, but they would have to listen to their voters in Waialua and Waianae and Mililani and Kahala. And I believe that this would most ably accomplish the mission set forth in the Charter, which is “… to seek to achieve in our time that righteousness by which the life of our land is preserved and to encourage and enable our people to participate in their governance.”

Ours is a once-in-a-decade opportunity, and this is the decade for us to make big moves. Thank you for your consideration.

  1. Added "equally-apportioned" per conversation with Trever Asam on Facebook.
  2. Trever disagrees with my reading of the word 'contiguous.' He might be right. At any rate, it's one word we can subtract from the next charter review.

He inoa no ka hulihia

My son was born this week fifteen years ago. He was a little late, but it wasn’t his fault. He emerged into the ao in our one-bedroom apartment on Waialae Avenue in Kaimuki, in the presence of his parents, his maternal grandmother, and our midwife, Laulani Teale.

It’s hard to imagine now, but the baby who has grown into a waterpolo star could once fit in my arms. I remember cradling him a few days into our new life as a family and thinking about the world that he and his generation would be growing up in. We knew about climate change when I was child. I read a news article in sixth grade in 1990 about global warming, and how it would have disastrous effects. The article said that world governments were going to implement a cap-and-trade regime in which polluters would buy the right to emit greenhouse gases from low-emitting states. It was a market-based system, admittedly, but that’s what the adults were doing, and I, an 11-year old, trusted them.

But here I was, sixteen years later, holding my own son in an unnaturally-hot September day, realizing that the adults had actually done nothing. And now I was an adult. Worrying about my own child.

I knew that he would be growing up in a world in crisis. A world of raging wildfires and melting glaciers. Of drought leading to famine, leading to war. Of irresponsible selfish actors, and performative ecological piety masking the deep changes that were really necessary. I didn’t know in 2006 that plastic straws would be the frontline of ecological thinking. I also didn’t realize that the rich wouldn’t just retire to yachts, but would actually build spaceships to leave the planet. And I didn’t foresee Covid. But I was unfortunately correct about the other things. I was right to stand there in a little apartment on Waialae Avenue, holding my son and crying about this bruised and burning world that was now his.

But I also had hope that one day things would get better. Humans designed this immiserating system. With the right thinking, nudging and organizing, we’d figure out how to build cities for humans and not cars. We’d figure out that it made more sense to rebuild lokoi’a than to import fish. We’d figure out how to develop economies around equanimity and collaboration, not exclusion and exploitation. It might take decades, but we’d get there. We’d need to persist through the difficult times, these dark ages, until a better world comes into focus.

So I did what Hawaiians do — I gave my son a name. There’s a proverb about how if one fishes with a short fishing line, an aho poko, they will catch a small fish. But if you have the patience and perseverance to go into the deep blue ocean and use an aho nui, you will be rewarded with a more satisfying catch. Aho is both the fishing line and patience, which is exactly what would need in order to survive through these dark ages. We paired ‘aholoa’ with two old family names. Kekaula is the name of my grandfather and my late uncle. The kaula is a string or rope, or the umbilical cord connecting generations. And at the advice of our family friend Kumu John Lake, we also invoked the name of another ancestor, Kaulahea, a 15-century Maui chief. Hea means ‘to call,’ and Kumu suggested that my son should be able to call upon his kupuna if need be.

It’s far too much to put on a child. Neither he, nor his siblings, nor any child from his generation, should be responsible for the burdens placed on them by all of us who created this ecological trauma. But his name, Kekaulaheaokeaholoa, is an inoa about this hulihia that we are living through. And the name – and the person with it – are a daily reminder for me about why I do what I do, whether in kūʻē or kūkulu. It’s very clear to me that I’m fighting for my children. I’m fighting for our future.

Remarks to FACE Delegated Council

We have a lot of victories to share.

Our strength is our faith, and our members who are driven, because of their faith, to do good works.

For some, that good work is to render aid directly, like the Good Samaritan. For others, it is to lead thousands to radically change society, like Dr. King.

And for most of us, it is somewhere in the middle: building a group of FACE members in your parish; attending a rally for workers rights, and organizing your group of members to attend; or speaking courageously at a public hearing; supporting the movement for faith-in-action financially.

We appreciate all these efforts.

We are in a moment of growth and transition, with important work to do.

We need to strengthen our by-laws; we need to refine our listening process not just to identify issues, but also to strengthen our relationships and build a stronger base.

It’s an honor to lead this organization as we celebrate our 25th anniversary and do this important work.


Faith Action

Rethinking our COVID-19 response

The Governor is considering massive pay cuts to government employees; the Legislature will be quitting session early, voting primarily on construction projects; and meanwhile, there have been 237,048 unemployment applications filed with the state. It’s not clear how the politics of the moment will end up, but there’s at least a sense in the air that without a major intervention, working people will bear both the human and financial burdens for this pandemic. Before votes are cast, let’s consider a few other options. Here’s a quick sketch of what that could look like – imho.

Solve health care for 237,048 + people who are now unemployed

A large portion of the incoming Federal dollars should be used to expand Medicaid and provide high-quality, lower-cost health care for these individuals. Though Medicare-For-All gets a lot of attention, Medicaid is a much more flexible program which states and counties can use to provide for our citizens. Senator Schatz has done a lot of work on this. And our neighbors in Nevada laid the groundwork in 2017 with a four-page bill that established a Medicaid-based Nevada Care Plan for all state residents. Copy & paste please.

At a moment of high unemployment and low interest-rates, invest in the long-term projects that our islands need

COVID is just the first crisis of the 2020s. We know that by the end of this decade we need to reduce our carbon dioxide footprint by half if we are to imagine a decent life for our children and grandchildren. This work includes reforestation and tree planting; opening new ag lands and restoring fishponds; increasing sewer capacity so that we can build more affordable housing in the urban core; burying utility poles to prepare for stronger storms; and building new solar farms to wean ourselves off of coal and oil and achieve island energy independence.

This is also a moment with high unemployment and historically-low interest-rates. So rather than using the $1.25B in federal dollars (part of a massive modern monetary-theory fueled $2T creation of cash) for these capital improvements, let’s float low-cost general-obligation bonds to pay for these financeable projects, while simultaneously creating green blue-collar jobs.

Save the federal cash for health care.

A better economy

Many hotel chains are refusing to accept federal dollars because they don’t want to be required to re-hire unionized workers when they reopen. Our city and state governments should pass requirements that workers can return to their jobs when the property reopens.

In the meantime, let’s reimagine our economy. Subsidies for tourism advertising should be ended, as Kaniela Ing mentioned. We need to keep resources available for 21st century industries, like carbon-capture and reuse and knowledge industries. But fundamentally, the key element in a more balanced economy is a well-educated populace – which is why the Draconian cuts floated by the Governor needs to be replaced with a better, more cogent budget proposal.

Neutralizing the carbon impact of air travel

Air travel is incredibly important to Hawaii. Not only is it fundamental to our economy, but it allows for remote islands such as ours to connect with the broader world. But aviation is a missing piece in our decarbonization efforts. I’m working on a new multi-stakeholder cooperative whose goal is to help with drawdown in general, and with decarbonizing air travel in particular.

Our plan is to develop a plant here on Oahu using the Air2Fuel technology created by Carbon Engineering, based in Squamish BC. We’ve initiated conversations with the major stakeholders — airlines, labor unions, regulators, land owners — and we’re projecting a launch in four years.

Electric aviation is probably 25 years out, so we’re projecting a 25-year lifetime for our plant.

The Sierra Club endorses our campaign


It’s my pleasure to announce a major endorsement – the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter. With 20,000 members and supporters, the Sierra Club is a leading voice for the environment.

Like many parents, I’m concerned about the world our children will inherit. My kids (ages 11, 9 and 3) are bright and inquisitive, and like most children, they’ve studied the impacts and science of climate change in school. But they don’t have the political power to make a difference. They’re counting on us, their mākua (parents) to step in and serve as their proxy.

We have ten short years — just 3,650 days — to make massive changes in our economy and public policy in order to mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change. We need a serious public conversation about a carbon tax. And we need to evaluate the major infrastructure decisions we’re making now, like the rail project and transit-oriented development, and investigate how they jive with the anticipated six feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. The City & County of Honolulu, with its attention to basic issues of infrastructure and land use, is where we can do a lot of good work on these key issues.

I’m a dad, social entrepreneur and community advocate running for Council because future generations matter to me, and because I know we can make a difference.

The life of the land will be preserved by us, standing up and taking action, together. Mahalo for your support, and mahalo to the Sierra Club for standing with us.

It's time to turn climate change into an opportunity for the future of our island

aloha tower_1930s.jpg

Global warming isn’t coming – it’s already here (and here). Our island’s response must come in two parts: a political determination to make every effort to mitigate the most dangerous effects of climate change before it’s too late; and a conscious effort to plan proactively for what we know is coming: sea-level rise, extreme weather patterns, and geopolitical and financial instability.

The City & County of Honolulu is where we need to work. I propose that we take a comprehensive, long-view approach to climate change, using a long-term climate financing model to prepare our city for the future.


Honolulu needs to build approximately $8 billion of new affordable housing in the urban core, mauka of the sea-level rise exposure area (SLRXA). Areas such as Moiliili are a smart place to invest city resources to redevelop and densify our housing inventory. My mental model is the medium-rise housing prevalent in cities such as Paris, where smart, pedestrian-focused design and an elegant aesthetics combine with public funding to create a beautiful city.

Utilities and Infrastructure

Honolulu’s infrastructure is already over-extended. Sewers are beyond capacity; water lines break regularly; the electrical grid begs for modernization. A new Green Deal for Honolulu should rapidly upgrade our infrastructure both to allow for smart growth in the urban core as well as to anticipate more severe weather patterns. Utility lines should be moved underground. And we should explore a public acquisition of the electrical grid so that solar, wind and wave energy providers can better compete against fossil fuel providers.

Moving rail mauka

The current trajectory for rail places the town segment within the SLRXA. We need to move rail, and all the housing and retail that it is designed to attract, firmly out of the flood zone, and to a mauka alignment connecting to the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Kakaako, whose road level will have to be raised to accommodate the inevitable flooding, should be serviced by a flexible, at-grad tram. And rail should be underground, built using a boring machine similar to what the city used to construct the Kaneohe-Kailua Wastewater Tunnel. It’s a proven technology, and will be easier to build than the elevated rail, which will run into many obstacles: real estate acquisitions, burials, utility relocations, business bankruptcies, traffic snarls, and general resentment.

Restoring food security

Oahu is notoriously food-insecure, with the preponderance of our foods imported from North America. Recent political decisions on projects like Ho‘opili have only contributed to the loss of agricultural land to suburban sprawl. My hope, though, is that by consciously investing our efforts in urban density, we can preserve remaining agricultural resources and restore a modicum of food security. This means opposing sprawl throughout the island including the North Shore, and using devices such as a carbon-tax on imports to allow for local food producers to compete against artificially-low prices.

Reinvesting in a city for us all

There are two ways to pay for this massive reinvestment in our city. The first is through a Climate Bond, which is a new financial vehicle used around the world to finance climate adaptation projects. A dedicated carbon tax could be used for this purpose. The second is a general bond, whose coupons could be offered to sale to Honolulu’s citizens. This would allow for our citizens to directly benefit from the public reinvestment of the expanded city economy, instead of the benefit flowing only to the major institutional investors who are currently being sought to invest in rail, for instance.

A long-term public reinvestment in our core infrastructure will dramatically expand opportunities for entrepreneurs and established corporations. Construction will actually increase, because of the direct public investment in housing and the new sewer and utility work. And an expanded tax base through new urban construction will allow for an expanded revenue to the city, which should again be reinvested in core programs like parks and recreation.

I look forward to working with subject-matter experts and my colleagues on the Council and the Mayor to advance a comprehensive plan that benefits us all.

Interfacing with the city

The city bureaucracy performs very important services for residents, but is often very difficult to navigate. Requests for help often result in being passed from clerk to clerk at various phone numbers; it’s difficult to track the status of a request over time, because very little is in writing and there is no clear reference number; and unless a citizen knows someone within the city administration, the entire process can often be too opaque. Council members often try to help, but the real authority resides in the Mayor and the staffers below she or he.

I propose that the city adopt a unified web-based customer service platform to track all requests from the citizenry. Each request should have a ticket number, and residents should be able to log in and view the status of their request as it moves through the bureaucracy.

These types of systems are very common in the cloud and are quite inexpensive to utilize. It’s a simple innovation that will make the city more effective.

How to deal with vacation rentals

Illegal vacation rentals remove units from the local housing inventory, increasing scarcity and raising prices, and often lead to disputes within neighborhoods between long-term residents and short-term vacationers. I believe that our public policy goal should be to prioritize the use of scarce land and housing for affordable residential use first. As a distant second goal, excess housing inventory should be allowed to be allocated for vacation use, but only once the primary goal of housing is achieved.

Based on this principle, it’s clear that the first step is enforcement against illegal vacation rentals because they are removing housing inventory from the residential market.

The Council is currently evaluating a new bill which raises fines for violations but also increases the quantity of allowed units.

Rick Daysog writes:

The bill would increase the number of legal vacation rentals from 800 to about 4,000 and would allow owners of homes to rent out rooms to tourists. But it would not allow entire homes in residential areas to be used as vacations rentals.

“It’s something that needs to be addressed. It’s having a major impact on neighborhoods and also our visitor industry,” Caldwell said.

Operators also have to pay higher property taxes and those that continue to operate illegally could face stiff fines ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, depending on the number of violations. Once they’re issued, the fines are not negotiable.

The higher fines are a step in the right direction, but we need to have a broader conversation about how to ensure that enforcement is applied evenly and fairly.

I’m also concerned that the 4,000 limit is far too high and possibly quite arbitrary. I would recommend that the city arrive at a quantity based on our island’s carrying capacity for tourism. And once that number is developed, I recommend that the permits be auctioned, similar to a medallion system for taxicabs. This would allow the city to maximize the revenue collected for these valuable permits.

Controlling runaway property taxes: the Tanaka-Serikaku Tax Plan

Mr. Tanaka

The increasing cost of housing is driving up property tax bills for many local families. Mr. Tanaka, pictured here, is one of many residents who raised the issue with me: why should he, he asked, have his tax bill increased just because a nearby parcel was redeveloped or renovated? I propose that we do the following:

  1. Cap the increase in property tax assessments to match inflation and federal increases to Social Security – approximately 2% per year.
  2. Allow the city to track a higher, market-based assessment for real property tax. The difference between this value and the ~2% capped-assessment would accrue as a lien, collectable by the city if the property is sold. (This idea was proposed by Mr. Serikaku of Moanalua.)
  3. Institute higher tiers of the property tax code to properly assess the new crop of ultra-luxury units in areas such as Kakaako. Units trading at $10 million or $20 million, should not be taxed at the same rate as a $1.2 million 50-year home in Liliha or Nuuanu.

Honolulu has a parking problem – but we can solve it


Honolulu has a parking shortage. Our problem has many roots: urban design decisions from forty years ago which separated work, schools, retail and housing, requiring each working adult to have their own vehicle; the high cost of land and housing, which leads to a congested rental market on crowded streets; major population growth coupled poor design choices; and uneven enforcement of our existing parking regulations. The result of these factors is an abundance of stress for already-overworked and overtaxed working people, problems for refuse collection and emergency vehicle access, and increasing incidents of inter-neighbor conflict and violence over parking.

This is a solvable problem. It won’t be easy, but it’s achievable.

The Japan model

The Japan method for handling parking is widely regarded as the optimal policy, but is probably too extreme for Honolulu. Japan requires citizens to prove access to off-street parking in order to purchase a vehicle, and they severely limit overnight on-street parking, which in turn has led to a private market for providers of off-street parking. As a result, the metropolis of Tokyo feels incredibly safe, clean, and surprisingly serene.

I don’t believe that there is political support for this in Honolulu, but I think we can approximate it here by encouraging off-street parking.

Creating a new parking market for Honolulu

The availability of parking in our neighborhoods varies widely by time of day and day of the week. The spacious parking lots of shopping centers are completely empty all night, from about 9pm to 9am. In Kalihi Valley, where I live for example, there are empty shopping centers which have ample parking which could be leased for residential use in their off-hours.

Circled in red are areas with abundant parking in the off-hours.

Circled in red are areas with abundant parking in the off-hours.

Schools, too, have vacant parking lots all night. Churches are generally empty six days out of the week. Many personal residences also have extra parking. My proposal would encourage these private, governmental and non-profit landowners to lease out extra space to residents who need parking.

In order to accomplish this, I recommend:

  • Clear delineation of on-street parking stalls in residential areas, with even-handed enforcement of these stalls
  • Regulated market pricing for parking permits. A sliding fee (based on wealth or income) should be applied to the restricted parking permits, against which private parking providers should be able to compete.
  • An ‘amnesty’ program, provided in conjunction with a nonprofit like Kidney Cars, to rid our streets of unused vehicles.

Public land is incredibly valuable

The proliferation of free parking on public streets has hidden an essential point: land is the most scarce and valuable commodity on our islands, and public land is no different. A constituent told me recently that each public parking stall is worth about $200,000. I’d be interested to hear from others if there is a more exact number. But at any rate, 1) land is incredibly valuable and 2) it is being under-valued in our current policy of lax enforcement.

The key is to correctly price the on-street parking permit. Thinking as an amateur economist, one way to do this is to start with strictly enforcing an RPZ, and then allowing the various providers in the market to find its own price through competition and trial-and-error (what economists call “price discovery”).

The long-term solution: smarter urbanism, public transportation, autonomous vehicles

My proposal is a temporary solution. The long-term solution is better urban design, in which we encourage planning patterns that make live-work-play more feasible. Kakaako is a good model of this, but so is the older model of general stores within neighborhoods, like John’s Grocery in Liliha.


As we consider new communities – for instance, a refreshed Moiliili along a mauka transit corridor – we should be planning for pedestrians first and cars second. Our Land Use Ordinance should encourage the integration of retail and housing in mid-rise affordable apartment buildings. And we should anticipate that autonomous vehicles will probably not require dedicated parking at all, but will rather be used on a per-hire basis like Lyft or Uber.

Dialogue creates better public policy. Please leave a comment below or email me at – mahalo!

Let's get the word out

Donate $1 or more so we can send our first mailer
Aloha kakou

Mahalo everyone – we hit our goal early! We have enough cash on hand to print a mailer. Now we need one more thing: $1. Your dollar will allow us to send the mailer to four voters. There are roughly 19,000 voters that we need to mail to, so we need help from 4,750 of our closest friends. Hiki ia’oe ke kokua? Can you help?

Here’s why this is important: on July 20, just three weeks away, more than 25% of the likely voters will mail in their absentee ballots. I’ve knocked on or called approximately 15,000 homes, but there are still many likely voters (who are primarily kupuna) who rely on the mail to get information, and who expect candidates to send mailers.

We need to share our concerns about the future of our island with our aunties and uncles who are likely voters. So please help me get the word to them by a small donation for postage. And if you can donate by Saturday midnight, we can count you in the key June 30 Campaign Spending report. Mahalo!

How to make sure rideshare works for all

Mayor Caldwell has vetoed the Council’s ban on surge pricing. This was the right move, in my opinion. Rideshare is transitional technology, en route to autonomy, more (not less) public transportation, and ultimately smarter cities which are designed for pedestrians, not cars.

Rather than seeking to prop up incumbent businesses, there’s two better things which the Council could achieve with regard to rideshare:

1) Better labor standards. We should make it easier for the drivers of these vehicles to unionize or at least begin to receive the benefits that unions can offer, such as retirement and health benefits.

2) Public-interest data. The data collected by the rideshare companies is tremendously valuable. Uber and Lyft know how frequently people utilize their services, from where and to where, when, as well as optimal pricing. I believe the city should strike an agreement with the rideshare companies in which that data is provided to the city in exchange for their ability to operate here. That data could then be used to identify new locations for TheBus stops, Biki stations, and even future rail stations.