The New City Council chairwoman

Windward member Barbara Marshall heads the Honolulu City Council as its first female chair in 20 years

Dan Boylan
Wednesday - January 17, 2007
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As a KHON news producer, Barbara Marshall was nicknamed ‘Sarge’ by Joe Moore
As a KHON news producer, Barbara
Marshall was nicknamed ‘Sarge’ by
Joe Moore

The Honolulu City Council’s new chair, Windward member Barbara Marshall, smiles and says: “You better get this article written fast. I may not be the chair a week from now.”

She’s not kidding. It takes only five votes to become chair of the Honolulu City Council, and there have been six Council reorganizations in the last four years. None lasted less than a week, but the shortest of the six held up for only six months, the longest only 14 months, the average - nine.

“The Council reorganizes all the time,” says East Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou. “It’s the way the body is designed: only nine members, and they’re non-partisan.”

Indeed. And a week after Marshall’s ascension to Council chair, Manoa Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi had already heard “talk of a reorg. Probably just rumors,” she says.

Prior to the Jan. 2 organizational meeting of the Council, Central Oahu Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz commanded the necessary five votes - one of which belonged to Marshall.

But at the organizational meeting, Marshall deserted Dela Cruz. So too did East Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou. They joined Leeward members Todd Apo, Nestor Garcia, Gary Okino and Kalihi Councilman Rod Tam to give Marshall the chairmanship.

“Several months ago I was approached about the job, but initially I didn’t want it,” says Marshall. “Since then I’ve been growing concerned with the relationship between the Council and the administration.”

So too had a number of others. Says Councilman Okino: “We were fed up because of the relationship between Donovan and the mayor. It had become so confrontational, it was really no relationship at all.”

Marshall is hardly an ardent supporter of the mayor. “I don’t see myself as a ‘friend’of any administration,” says Marshall. “After all, it’s my job to ask tough questions. But we can’t continually be at loggerheads with the mayor.”

Marshall characterizes her own relationship with Mayor Mufi Hannemann as “cordial.”

“As a reporter (for KHON television), I covered him when he ran for Congress and when he headed DBEDT (Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism),” says Marshall.

“But we’ve known heated moments as councilmember and mayor. Mayor Hannemann is strong-minded. He likes people to agree with him.”

And Marshall hasn’t always agreed with Hannemann, particularly on the Mayor’s pet project: construction of a rail transit system that will link Leeward Oahu to downtown and the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

“What’s surprising is that she’s opposed to the project closest to the mayor’s heart,” says Kobayashi. “The anti-rail people are encouraged that she’s become chair.”

“I voted against raising the excise tax to build the system,” says Marshall, “but after it passed I was prepared to support rail - until I saw the alternatives analysis. The analysis showed that travel times wouldn’t change much and that in the case of Waianae-to-downtown, for example, travel by rail would actually take longer.

“So Act 79 gives the mayor options, and it limits spending on the project to revenue from the excise tax and from federal grants. Nothing else can be touched. Those limits on funding doom a full route with a spur to Waikiki - although the private sector contribution hasn’t been factored in.

“I have this concern that we’ll start building the thing, run out of money, and have it end in an empty field somewhere. I’m also worried about the cost of maintaining a rail system. They’re expensive, and we’re already taxing our people to death.”

Only East Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou joined Marshall in opposing Act No. 79.

Both Marshall and Djou represent districts that will not be served by the proposed rail system.

Marshall bristles at the suggestion that she’s only voting her district’s interests. “I opposed the bill because I care about the people of the Leeward coast and Central Oahu,” she insists. “The proposed system isn’t going to give them any relief - not in the next 10 years or in the next 20 years. Even the mayor admits that it won’t ease congestion.

“But there are a myriad of things that we could do tomorrow that would ease congestion. Extend the zipper lane. Change the university’s hours at Manoa so that student traffic is not part of the rush hour crunch. Limit one lane of H-1 to buses only. Achieve greater traffic signal optimization.

“Build the university campus at West Oahu and support the development of businesses at Kapolei so that people who live out there can work out there. Stagger the work hours of city and state employees.”

Marshall may harbor deep concerns about rail transit, but that “doesn’t mean I’m going to throw every impediment I can in its way. It doesn’t mean I won’t put a bill on the Council’s agenda, but I hope the public will get involved.”

Marshall has an agenda of her own that she feels deserves as much of the City’s attention as transit. “Don’t forget Beachwalk. We face a crisis in regard to our sewers. We’re under tremendous pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency. We’re operating with solid waste plans that are 25 years old.

“We have to address the City’s energy needs. And affordable housing. We have a generation of kids who can’t afford to buy or rent on Oahu. We have to work more closely with the state on housing.”

Marshall’s path to the Council chair did indeed begin six months ago. As she suggests, it followed the deteriorating relationship between Chairman Dela Cruz and Mayor Hannemann. According to Djou, “Six months ago, the mayor was intimately involved in trying to oust Donovan. It didn’t work. This time he kept his four troops together (Apo, Garcia, Okino and Tam), and sent Rod and Todd to work on Barbara. The mayor himself stayed on the sidelines this time.”

The tipping point in the relationship between Hannemann and Dela Cruz came during some 15 hours of debate over Act No. 79, the administration’s transit proposal. “The convoluted recesses, changes - all to no purpose,” says Okino. “We selected a bad route, then replaced it with a good route. Then more rigamarole.”

Others on the Council shared Okino’s frustration. Following the transit hearings and vote, talk of a leadership change became louder. At first Marshall indicated she’d never do it, that she was loyal to Dela Cruz, then that she was considering it, then maybe. “I was reluctant to make the leap,” she says. “I was a big backer of Donovan’s.” But at the Jan. 2 leadership meeting, Marshall - with the backing of Hannemann’s allies - jumped into the job.

So what can Honolulu’s citizens expect from their new Council chair? “She’s a very hard-working councilmember,” says Ann Kobayashi, who lost control of the powerful Budget Committee in the reorganization. “I think she’ll make a good chair.”

Most of Marshall’s Council colleagues agree with Kobayashi. “Barbara has a level of independence and lack of politicalism - if that’s a word - that will make her a good chair,” says the body’s new vice chair, Todd Apo. “It may be naïve to think Barbara will be able to remove all politics from the Council. But she’s not aligned with any political party, nor am I. I don’t think either of us ever saw ourselves in leadership roles. In the past, the chairs of the Council have tended to be political heavy hitters, including the guy who’s now mayor.”

Says Pearl City Councilman Gary Okino, another Marshall supporter: “Barbara does what she believes in. She has principles and

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