Category Archives: Legislature

Column examines issues of proposed new jail and prison

The state and the legislature are approaching decisions on the future of our prison system on two separate tracks.

Just how this process is unfolding was the subject of my Civil Beat column this week (“Ian Lind: Count On Hawaii To Ignore Logical Prison Report/In the rush to build a new prison, the Legislature is likely to shunt aside the work of a task force it created just last year“).

On the one hand, the legislature last year approved over $5 million for planning of a replacement for the aging Oahu Community Correctional Center, the state’s largest jail. And a new bill moving ahead this year calls for setting aside that plan, and instead beginning planning on a new and much larger prison. The current prison at Halawa would then be used as the new jail. That new plan got the quick endorsement of the head of the state’s prison system, despite the obvious problem that facilities are normally designed around their intended functions, and so the design of the current prison is much different than what is needed in a jail. And a new larger prison is likely to cost upwards of $1 BILLION, a figure likely to make even stalwart proponents gasp.

But last year’s legislature also created a task force charged with reviewing correctional “best practices” in use elsewhere that could be used to reduce Hawaii’s jail and prison population, allowing any new facilities to be downsized rather than enlarged. The task force, unfortunately, was not endowed with any budget, but has been meeting since last June without benefit of funding.

The task force has released an interim report, with its final report and recommendations due prior to the opening of the 2018 legislative session. It’s well worth reading.

Here’s my brief summary:

“To improve outcomes and bring costs under control, Hawaii must chart a new course and transition from a punitive to a rehabilitative correctional model,” the task force says in its preliminary report. The move is driven by “the fact that all but a few of the men and women who go to prison will one day return to the community.” Therefore, the task force says, the question for public policy is how to use their time in prison to shape their lives for the better and change the behavior that landed them in prison.

The report proposes moving away from viewing prison as punishment and instead treating incarcerated persons “with aloha” as a core value.

One key is education and training for prison and jail workers, and the task force recommends creation of a corrections academy for employees in both the executive and judicial branches.

It recommends setting targets for reducing the prison population through diversion programs, bail reform and efficiencies in processing pre-trial detainees, and “focused, evidenced-based rehabilitative programs for those in prison.”

“The question should not be how large a new jail needs to be, but how small the jail can be with successful diversion programs? Overbuilding would be one of the worst mistakes the State could make,” the report states.

In any case, a messy issue. Check my take in Civil Beat. Feel free to comment here.

Making sense of what was spent lobbying the legislature last year

In my Civil Beat column last week, I tried to do an overview of lobbying expenditures reported to the State Ethics Commission during 2016 (“Ian Lind: Tightening The Rules For Lobbyists/Lobbyists spent millions trying to influence lawmakers last year“).

I reported more than $5.3 million had been spent on legislative lobbying during the year, which seems like a substantial number. In the end, though, that total dropped to a bit under $5.3 million as a result of errors in the reports that were filed.

The column also reviews proposals from the ethics commission for clarifying reporting requirements in an attempt to close several loopholes that have been exploited by some to sidestep the disclosure requirements.

I would suggest that you at least skim the column, then return here for an explanation of what went into writing it and the problems I ran into.

First, I downloaded the latest version of the database of reported expenditures by organizations that retain lobbyists or are otherwise required to disclose their costs for influencing legislation, and then selected a subset containing all the reports for each of three reporting periods during 2016. These reports cover the periods January 1-February 28, March 1-April 30, and May 1-December 31. The legislature is in session during most of the first two periods.

When these are put online, the commission includes the amount reported for fees paid to lobbyists, and for the total of all categories of spending, in addition to the organization name, date filed, and other details. Also included is a link to the available pdf of the form.

During an initial pass examining the data, I noticed that several organizations submitted amended reports during the year. I went through each of those, and tried to make sense of the “amendments.” In some cases, the amendments appeared to simply be duplicates of the originals. In a few other cases, they reported new and presumably updated figures.

In one case–Outrigger Hotels–there were several amended disclosure forms filed, each containing the same numbers. On its face, it appeared Outrigger ranked #2 of all the organizations in spending, but several things stood out as warning flags that this might have been the result of errors. While I was working on my column, I tried reaching Max Sword, Outrigger’s in-house lobbyist. But Sword is also the current chair of the Honolulu Police Commission, which was meeting that same day, and I wasn’t able to reach him until the following day.

It turned out, according to Sword, that errors were made in the online process of filing these reports, resulting in errors. But although I suspected there were errors, at least in the case of Outrigger, I wasn’t able to confirm them prior to publication.

In any case, my next step was to add up the amounts reported in each of the three periods for each organization, and produced a list of the total amount spent by each group during 2016. Then I sorted these in descending order to give a quick list of the top spending lobbying groups.

I’m pretty sure that this is still a relatively good assessment of the overall situation. However, my “final” numbers changed when I made the correction for Outrigger, dropping it from #2 to #8 in the ranking.

Here’s a link to the full list of organizations and what they reported spending on lobbying at the legislature last year.

If you spot instances that deserve more attention, please leave a comment below. Thanks.

Threats and fines don’t matter when you’ve got to go

An Associated Press story about Rep. Gene Ward’s proposal to create “urine free zones” that would attach a fines up to $2,000 to the act of relieving one’s bladder without benefit of toilet was picked across the country this week.

What madness. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. At that point it’s pee in your clothes or in the bushes. Threats and fines don’t help.

When I was on the staff of the Star-Bulletin and often had multiple things to do downtown, I recall my mental map of accessible places to pee. It was in self-defense, as more and more places started locking up their restrooms. It worked pretty well, although on one or two occasions I found myself looking around for potential locations “just in case” I wasn’t able to reach a safe zone in time.

I wrote about the issue back in a 2008 column. I think it was the same year that a bill or two pushed the need for public restrooms, and had mainstream support from Catholic Charities, as I recall.

I’m reprinting that column below. Nothing seems to have changed in the interim.

When you’ve got to go
by Ian Lind
Honolulu Weekly, March 20, 2008

It’s one of those messages that you don’t want to see at a moment of crisis: “Sorry, no public restrooms.”

Although the discomfort of finding yourself in urgent need of a toilet is often fodder for comedians, getting caught in that situation is no laughing matter. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go, but the number of publicly accessible toilets in Honolulu has been rapidly dwindling as businesses have restricted previously available facilities, citing the high costs of maintenance, and neither state nor county governments have stepped up to address the resulting problems.

Legislators haven’t responded either, perhaps because of the stigma associated with public discussion of toilets. This year, a bill has passed the State House and is awaiting action in the Senate extending a 2004 law making it illegal to urinate or defecate in public anywhere in the downtown business district despite the fact that publicly accessible toilets are hard to find, while another bill that would have required businesses to open existing toilets to the public died without a hearing.

Honolulu’s bus system doesn’t provide public toilets even at major transfer points, despite its reliance on several long-haul routes, and transit planners have pointedly stated that they have no intention of building restrooms into stations along the proposed new rail line.

So with businesses locking their toilets, a dearth of public facilities, and laws against emergency stops in public, this can be a very serious issue. My wife points out that even planning a simple shopping trip requires taking into consideration available rest stops, and the challenges are more serious for those with special needs, including families with small children, pregnant women, those with medical conditions, the elderly and disabled. For them, as well as many of the rest of us, a long commute, a shopping trip, or any other excursion away from home can lead to embarrassing and uncomfortable incidents.

The American Restroom Association, a Washington-based education and advocacy group, views the lack of publicly available toilets as a serious personal and public health issue in the U.S.

Association president Robert Brubaker, in a November 2007 interview, called for Americans “to start talking about restrooms and speak up for them just as they do for streetlights and sidewalks.”

Brubaker attributed the lack of publicly accessible facilities both to Americans reticence to openly discuss toilet use, and to a policy gap in laws at the federal, state, and local levels.

Federal labor regulations protects the health of workers by requiring employers to provide a minimum number of bathrooms depending on the type of business and the number of employees, but there’s no requirement that they serve the public. The federal Department of Health and Human Services, which should be serving up laws and rules to provide sanitation facilities for the general public, has failed to act on proposals for public restroom standards. For the most part, restroom access has been governed by state and local regulations.

Most local governments, including here in Hawaii, have adopted provisions of the Uniform Plumbing Code, which sets out standards for the required number of toilets in most buildings. The UPC also requires that those toilets be accessible to all “occupants”, meaning that if a building or business allows the public to enter as customers, they must also be provided access to the building’s restrooms.

Those restrooms available only to employees aren’t counted by the UPC when determining whether a building complies with the requirement.

But a funny thing happened here in the islands. Although the City and County of Honolulu adopted most of the Uniform Plumbing Code, the sections dealing with toilet facilities were deleted and do not apply, or “may be used as a guide only.”

Similarly, the State Department of Health has adopted provisions for “sanitary facilities” in auditoriums, churches, theaters, “amusement places”, and “buildings of public assembly”, along with schools, dormitories, and bars. But DOH regulations covering restaurants, markets, and other businesses “do not include the
provision for public use,” again failing to serve the broader public interest, and those applying to office buildings and other retail businesses are absent.

What can be done? In Portland, Oregon, a community advocacy group calling itself PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human) has pushed the city to explore options for meeting the need for public toilets. In one report, PHLUSH reviewed a number of urban options, including automated restrooms that clean themselves after each use, portable toilets, freestanding restrooms supported by advertising, and even storefront rest stops that combine toilet facilities with community services, perhaps offering free space to social service agencies in exchange for managing the public toilets.

Working with students and professors from a local university, PHLUSH initiated a study of existing facilities and needs, and has worked with city officials to find innovative solutions to what is really a basic need. Similar cooperative efforts to address this public health issue here at home are long overdue.

At-grade option offers a way out of Honolulu’s train wreck

I was sorry to see Lee Cataluna’s glib column this morning disparaging the possibility of incorporating the at-grade option in order to complete Honolulu’s rail system, which is currently collapsing under the weight of dramatic cost overruns, inept planning and management, and vicious politics, which have combined to create world-leading per-mile costs.

A coalition has emerged to promote an at-grade option which promises lower costs and an improved rider experience at street level. We should be jumping at this option, not finding excuses to not even explore it further.

It doesn’t sound to me like Cataluna took the time to read any of the extensive documentation provided to support the at-grade alternative (see the Salvage the Rail report here).

Here’s the best Cataluna can do to deride this alternative proposal.

But that utopian photo rendering is not what downtown Honolulu streets look like. Where are the bicycles whizzing through intersections with impunity? Where are the guys on high-pitched, foul-smelling mopeds weaving in and out of traffic? Where are the people with their eyes glued to their phones and their ears plugged with earbuds leisurely moseying across the crosswalk while the red hand blinks to no effect? Where are the drivers yapping on their phones? The crush of late and frazzled commuters? The grandmas with huge dark glasses slowly pulling their wheeled shopping baskets along the roadside? The city streets are already full up, maxed out and crazy with vehicles, pedestrians and troublemakers without a train plowing through all that chaos. Will all those users suddenly be off the pavement and on the train?

The fact is that virtually all cities in the U.S. and internationally that have built rail systems in the past three decades have relied on the kind of light rail technology that allows trains to run on the ground, through shopping areas and downtown malls. They have all dealt with these common traffic issues. Planners have had to develop techniques for minimizing the issues Cataluna seems to feel are unsolvable.

It seems to me that officials have a responsibility to carefully assess this alternative now, before the opportunity passes. If there’s a chance that it can salvage a reasonable rail system out of the current financial train wreck, even if Hawaii drivers experience a bit of stress along the way, it’s not something to reject out of hand as Cataluna would have us do.

Right now, there are several possible scenarios. We could proceed with business as usual, and will probably end up spending $12 billion or more to complete the train as originally planned.

On the other hand, it’s always possible that Honolulu will be forced to throw in the towel, admit financial defeat, and spend the next ten years paying to demolish the parts of the system already built.

Or we’ll limp along, find a way to control the budget by stripping out all frills and extras, cutting stations and amenities, ending up what will still be the world’s costliest urban rail system, but with fewer stops, fewer riders, and perpetual ongoing deficits.

None of those are pretty pictures.

Given those alternatives, I would think reasonable people would want to spend some time to understand how other cities across the globe have made at-grade rail systems work.

Cataluna’s clever localisms don’t do anything to further that understanding.