Millions of dollars set aside in a fund intended to be used only for important land conservation projects could instead be diverted to provide open space or parks along Honolulu’s proposed rail transit route if Mayor Mufi Hanneman’s administration has its way.
But the chair of the commission established by the City Council to administer the special fund says it would be illegal under current law for Hannemann to do an end run around the commission in order to take control of the conservation funding.
The money is part of the city’s Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund, created after voters approved an amendment to the Honolulu City Charter in 2006 setting aside at least one-half percent of annual real property tax revenue for land conservation. A City Council resolution which established a commission to administer the fund later defined its mission as protecting “still undeveloped and important environmental and aesthetic assets…vulnerable to ongoing development, commercial interests, and urban sprawl.”
Use of the conservation fund is limited by law to specific purposes:
protection of watershed lands to preserve water quality and water supply; preservation of forests, beaches, coastal areas and agricultural lands; public outdoor recreation and education, including access to beaches and mountains; preservation of historic or culturally important land areas and sites; protection of significant habitats or ecosystems, including buffer zones; conservation of land in order to reduce erosion, floods, landslides, and runoff; and acquisition of public access to public land and open space.
Under the procedures set up by the City Council in the ordinance establishing the fund and a resolution setting up an advisory commission to administer the process, the Clean Water and Natural Land Commission solicits and screens applications for funding, then reports their findings and recommends specific spending priorities to the council.
Although its recommendations are advisory, Ord. 07-18 requires all expenditures to be “consistent with” the funding priorities recommended by the commission.
It would be a violation of law, as established by the City Charter and implemented by Ord. 07-18, for the administration to simply disregard the commission’s recommendations or circumvent the commission process.
The Charter further restricts use of the funds, specifying that any expenditures from the fund must be in addition to and not in place of “appropriations historically made for the purposes stated in this section,” meaning that the city can’t simply use the CWNL funds to augment its budget during the current fiscal crisis.
More than $4 million was deposited into the fund last year, with a similar amount to be added in the upcoming year, and most of that is still available.
In his “State of the City” speech earlier this year, Mayor Hannemann said he intends to tap the Clean Water and Natural Lands money to promote transit oriented development along the rail transit route that would include open space and “a sustainable environment” in new rail-spawned developments.
While dipping into the available CWNL funds is undoubtedly tempting to the cash-strapped city, it is unlikely to go down well with environmentalists who backed the 2006 charter amendment, which was approved, over Hannemann’s objections, by more than 58% of Honolulu residents voting on the issue.
Marjorie Ziegler, chair of the Clean Water and Natural Lands Commission and executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, said she has heard Hannemann wants half of the available funds to be devoted to providing open space along the rail.
“It’s perfectly appropriate for him to go to the Council and change the law,” Ziegler said. “But he can’t take half the money until the law is changed. Until you change the law, you can’t do whatever you please with these funds.”
Ziegler stressed that the commission has tried to be “transparent and fair,” and has solicited applications for funding from the administration and the public.
“We’re going to follow the law until the law is changed,” Ziegler said. “We have to do due diligence here because it’s the taxpayer’s money.”
“That’s my position as chair, and I think nobody (on the commission) disagrees with that,” Ziegler said.
Minutes of the Clean Water and Natural Lands Commission, along with correspondence and testimony on file with the city show that the administration has had a rocky relationship with the commission through most of its history.
When the commission was created in 2007, an administration representative attended commission meetings and appeared supportive of its efforts, records show. What is equally clear is that the administration’s attitude changed when it became clear that the commission would be outside of its control.
Ziegler said the commission has encouraged the administration to submit applications for projects it would like to see funded with the land conservation funds, signaling they would likely get a positive reception. A City Council resolution issued a similar invitation.
However, in a March 2009 letter to the council, Hannemann replied:
For philosophical reasons, the Council’s request is objectionable insofar that my administration is asked to submit our projects through the Council’s Commission….I strongly object to the Council’s intrusion into an executive branch function to evaluate projects for funding with Fund monies.
The administration’s objections appear to have two parts. First, the administration continues to reflect Hannemann’s initial opposition to the charter amendment establishing the land conservation fund.
In a June 2008 letter to the commission, then-Managing Director Wayne Hashiro expressed the administration’s position when he wrote that land conservation “is not a core function of city government.”
Instead of “the preservation of forests, beaches, coastal areas and agricultural lands, preservation of historic or culturally important land areas and sites,” the administration said the priority would be development or expansion of active parks.
The Charter Commission that recommended the land conservation fund and the majority of voters who approved it might take a contrary position. The fact that land conservation is not a “core function” is precisely why a special fund like this is so necessary. Without it, conservation might not have a place on the public agenda.
In addition, the administration has objected to the City Council’s exclusive appointment authority, and may be angling for authority to appoint some of the commissioners.
Commission minutes show an ongoing concern over lack of communication and problems getting any response from the administration. With commission backing, Ziegler met with Managing Director Kirk Caldwell in early November 2009 to discuss the commission’s concern as to whether the administration had released funds for previously approved projects.
“Mr. Caldwell does not know if the Mayor will release the funds,” according to the commission’s minutes.
It isn’t clear whether the funding was being held “hostage” in an attempt to force changes sought by the administration, but that’s how it appeared to some commissioners.
The minutes reflect the Hannemann administration’s fixation on being in control.
Chair Ziegler sensed from her meeting with Mr. Caldwell that the mayor has some concerns about how the commissioners were chosen since the commissioners were chosen by the council and whether the city administration or the council makes the final decision on the expenditure of the fund.
Caldwell could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The mayor signaled an apparent escalation of pressure in this year’s “State of the City” speech, where he spoke of drawing on Clean Water and Natural Lands funds for transit oriented development along the rail route.
The mayor’s budget, now pending before the city council, includes $3 million from the CWNL Fund for unspecified purposes:
Provision of funds for the acquisition of band for land conservation purposes consistent with the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu Chapter 6, Article 62, which may include acquisition of land for an active park in the Leeward area such as the Nanakuli area.
Minutes of the CWNL Commission indicate that no proposal of this kind has been submitted to or considered by the commission.
Cynics might see this as a “poison pill” for Council Chair Todd Apo, who might have a difficult time turning down a new park in his district, even if it means initiating changes in the Clean Water and Natural Land Commission to give the administration more direct access to the land conservation funds for other purposes.
If successful, Hannemann’s maneuver would co-opt the land conservation fund and transform it from a defense against ongoing development and commercial interests into a source of assured funding for just such development along the rail line.
[Note: I ran out of time before inserting links to the relevant city documents. Hopefully I’ll get back to this later today.]