New Chairman At The City Council

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - July 20, 2011

Ernie Martin. Photo courtesy Ernie Martin

In last fall’s elections, 51-year-old Ernie Martin won the Honolulu City Council’s 2nd District seat. His win over former Council staffer Mike White could hardly be characterized as a clear mandate from the voters. Martin beat White by a mere 47 votes out of more than 22,000 cast in the huge 2nd District that runs from Mililani to Haleiwa and includes all of the North Shore.

Yet less than six months after assuming office, council members voted unanimously to elevate freshmen member Martin to the chair.

Why the sudden ascent? “I suppose it had something to do with the experience I brought to the chairmanship of the Budget Committee. I’d served in the city’s executive branch for 23 years, so I understood the process.”

And some on the council did not. Besides Martin, three more of those taking their oaths as council members last December were frosh: Tom Berg from Ewa’s 1st District, Stanley Chang from East Honolulu’s 4th District and Tulsi Gabbard from downtown’s 6th District. Save for Gabbard’s single term in the state House, none of them had served previously in a legislative body.

But Martin had those 23 years at the city’s Department of Human Resources, where he rose to acting director, the position he held when he won his election to the council, and from which he watched the council up close as it dealt with his department’s budget and three previous mayors.

So Martin brought more experience to the newly set city table than any member of the council; and, it could be argued, more than the new mayor, Peter Carlisle, or his managing director, Douglas Chin, both products of the City Prosecutor’s office.

Martin quotes Councilman Romy Cachola in giving Carlisle an “E for effort” in coming up to speed on issues facing the city.

Says Martin: “Peter is not a micro-manager. He’s said as much. He’s not day-to-day. He’s going to rely on his managing director for that.

“But I worked under Jeremy Harris and Mufi Hannemann. They were both very hands-on, very well-prepared on any matter before the city. They really set the pace. They said, ‘These are my objectives, and I expect you to reach them.’

“From the council’s standpoint, we’re reaching out to the mayor through managing director Doug Chin,” says Martin.

He and Chin were classmates at the UH Richardson School of Law. And while they have disagreements, Martin believes they can reach an accommodation on most issues. He has hope for the mayor as well.

“Because he was new, Peter didn’t understand the relationship between the council and mayor. He took it for granted that since he was mayor, he called the shots.”

One of the disagreements between mayor and council has been over the cost of the city’s proposed rail system and whether the council should exercise oversight of rail’s budget.

“How can the City Council give up oversight of the biggest and most expensive public works project in the city’s history?” Martin asks, making clear that he considers the question rhetorical.

Martin began working for the city in 1987 while still a student of sociology at UH, “as an assistant groundskeeper trainee. I was a part-time roving grass cutter. I enjoyed it.” After graduation, he joined the Office of Human Resources, working with job-training for at-risk youth, and he never left.

Martin admits that his ambition goes beyond the chairmanship of the council: “I always thought, even when Fasi was mayor, that one day I could sit in that seat. If I felt I could be effective, I could do it.”

Will he be a candidate for mayor in 2012? 2014? 2018?

“Never say never,” says Martin.

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