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Analysis

Land is power in Honolulu Hale

All nine Honolulu council members and the mayor owe their positions, in large part, to donors with strong ties to Hawaii’s powerful land development interests.

in Ho‘opili development in Ewa Development Plan in Rail in Land and Water Use

It’s no secret that land is Hawaii’s most precious resource and valuable commodity. Developers and real estate agents can make fortunes dealing with land and the way it is used in this state. Architects, engineers and construction companies compete for valuable contracts to carry out development projects. Since the 1950s, Hawaii’s banks have promoted overseas investment in tourism and land development (see Hawaii: Islands Under the Influence by Noel J. Kent). Law and accounting firms often list real estate and land use as specialties and government jobs that deal directly with land use are some of the most coveted and influential positions out there; land development experts are often nominated to fill them. But you might be surprised to find out the extent to which businesses tied to the land game in Hawaii appear to be influencing politicians.

A report conducted by The Friends of Makakilo, Inc. shows that all nine of Honolulu’s City Council members owe their seats, in large-part, to businesses that profit from real estate development. The organization is using the report to ask the City Ethics Commission to take a look at the council votes that went into two of the most lucrative development projects in the history of Hawaii: Honolulu Rail and the accompanying Hoopili housing development. (The Hoopili development will destroy some of the best farmland in the world to build another suburban housing development in central Oahu.)

“Our organization has studied the campaign donations to City Council Members for the period of January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2014. We have concluded that the donations they have received from members of the construction community were so great that they compromised the independence of judgement and the freedom of choice that are fundamental requirements in any unbiased, ethical, and valid vote,” said Dr. Kioni Dudley, President of The Friends of Makakilo, at a press conference today.

He added, “In our study, we included people who would profit directly from approval of both Ho’opili and Rail, since the City Council members are convinced that one can’t exist without the other.”

In examining campaign donations received by the council members between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2014, the nonprofit reports that large chunks—in some cases the majority—of all council members’ campaign money comes from businesses that “will profit from a ‘Yes’ vote” in the council on approving the Ho’opili and Rail projects.

According to the report, Kymberly Pine took in a total of $160,879;  $116,801 or 72 percent, was from Hoopili and Rail interests.

Ikaika Anderson took in $139,518, of which $100,668 (also 72 percent) was from these projects.

Ron Menor only took in $48,405, but the report estimates that $34,650, again 72 percent, was from Rail and Hoopili.

Brandon Elefante took in $37,322, of which $24,292, or 65 percent, came from Rail and Hoopili.

Ernest Martin took in the most, with $451,240, of which $268,017, or 59 percent, is believed to be tied to those two projects.

Trevor Ozawa brought in $183,320, and his Rail and Hoopili amount was $104,550, or 57 percent.

Joey Manahan brought in $182,215, of which $83,512, or 46 percent, is believed to come from those two projects.

Ann Kobayashi collected $57,136 in donations, $24,450 of which, or 43 percent, is from Rail and Hoopili.

Lastly, Carol Fukunaga brought in $258,321, of which $104,565, still 40 percent, came from Rail and Hoopili development interests.

According to the report, It is likely that these amounts considerably under-report the total contributions linked to Hoopili and Rail, since “no employer was listed for most donors, and it was not always possible to identify a spouse, relative, or employee of a principal donor.”

We took a look at Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s most recent campaign donations filings (2014-2016 Supplemental January 1 - June 30, 2015) and did research into each name on the list (again, many people did not list their employers or relatives, even when those connections clearly point back to the land game). Our results are incredibly similar to those turned up by The Friends of Makakilo, Inc.

We ran two sets of calculations. The first included everybody we thought might conceivably profit from increased development: lawyers and accountants whose firms list “real estate” and “land use” as special areas of law- or tax-expertise; employees of public relations and lobbying firms whose client lists include developer-interests; employees of investment firms, as well as private investors, who have been involved in land deals in the past; anyone employed by a bank involved in development deals; anyone involved in real estate and development; and, of course, any architects, engineers, contractors, designers and suppliers that would conceivably benefit from construction of development projects like Rail and Hoopili. (See spreadsheet this calculation was based on here).

In the second calculation, we only included donors with clear ties to development interests—no lawyers or lobbyists who are only probably connected. (See spreadsheet for this calculation here).

Out of the (amazing) $495,393.09 grand total Mayor Caldwell has reported raising in this 2014-2016 Supplemental January 1 - June 30, 2015 period, our low-end estimate is that roughly $266,600 (54 percent) came from donors who make their money in real estate and development. Our high-end estimate: $307,700 (62 percent) came from land development interests.

We deliberately took a wider stance and looked for anyone whose money is made in real estate and/or development, rather than just the Rail and Hoopili projects, because—although those are certainly the biggest examples of how land development can make certain folks a lot of money—they’re only one part of a bigger story about land use in Hawaii. George Cooper’s and ‎Gavan Daws’ 1990 book Land and Power in Hawaii could very well be renamed Land = Power in Hawaii and mean the same thing.

In recent weeks, the council has considered a re-vote on rail stemming from the substantial fines former City Council Members Romy Cachola and Nestor Garcia have had to pay for taking bribes to vote on Rail (Cachola was fined a record $50,000 by the city Ethics Commission for accepting gifts from lobbyists linked to rail and for not reporting potential conflicts on votes affecting that lobbyist. Garcia was fined $8,100 for similar ethics breach allegations.) The staff of the Honolulu Ethics Commission has recently declared that the Rail votes by Cachola are invalid.

Campbell Estate heiress Abigail Kawananakoa announced today that she has filed a lawsuit against the city to invalidate the corrupt votes taken by Garcia and Cachola to pass Rail and other West Oahu development projects like Hoopili. Council Chair Ernie Martin had promised to ask his colleagues on the City Council to consider re-voting on key bills and resolutions for Rail. But based on the amount of money the council members and the mayor have all received from pro-rail, pro-development interests, would a re-vote really change anything?

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