After more five years of criticism for millions of dollars spent on random community projects, City & County of Honolulu Managing Director Ben Lee announced yesterday the city will no longer allocate funding to the city’s 19 visioning teams.

Lee’s announcement came prior to the Honolulu City Council Budget Committee consideration of two related resolutions. The first would put a two-year moratorium on funding for vision teams and neighborhood board projects, and the second would require vision team and neighborhood board allocations be used for the maintenance of city roads, which according to a recent study, and Oahu’s drivers, are in dire need of repair.

The announcement was well received by some of the 9 members of the Honolulu City Council, including Council Member Charles Djou who commended Harris for taking a “needed step in reforming the visioning team process.”

Djou says over the past five years, vision teams have been responsible for a number of cost prohibitive projects, like the community signs in Nuuanu, which reportedly cost in excess $500,000, and have increased the city’s debt load.

Other critics point to vision team projects such as the $150,000 “Welcome to Hawaii Kai” sign at the entrance of this East Honolulu community, as wasteful. Not only was the sign costly, but at just one year old, it is already deteriorating, cracking and in need of $18,000 in repairs.

The vision team project across Kalanianaole Highway referred to as the “canoe halau,” similar to the one built under vision team instruction in Kailua, was criticized for its total cost and the fact that several of the canoes did not even fit within the structure that was designed and built.

A third project under fire in Hawaii Kai is the so-called “traffic calming – tree beautification” project in the center of Lunalilo Home Road, complete with its own irrigation system. The neighborhood board, when informed of the project, unanimously voted to oppose it, as did citizens who attended that meeting. The city administration however announced it was not subject to scrutiny or approval by the neighborhood board as the visioning team initiated the project, and the city would go ahead. The initial contracts already have been let by the city.

The 19 visioning teams, founded in 1998 by Harris, were supposedly set up to encourage citizens to get involved with local government and come up with projects to improve their communities.

Each visioning team was allocated $2 million per year, with that amount dropping to $1 million in FY 2003-2004 because the Honolulu City Council cut the funding.

But neighborhood board members who are elected, complained their authority was being undermined by vision team members who were not elected.

The mayor, in a public relations move, allocated $1 million per year to each of the 32 neighborhood boards, leading some of the board members to stop their protests. But government watchdogs and some of the more fiscally astute neighborhood board members said the $1 million allocation was just adding to the city debt load. This neighborhood board funding, which dropped to $500,000 this fiscal year, also is being cut altogether next fiscal year according to managing director Lee.

Criticism also came from those who regularly attended meetings and claimed members of Harris’ cabinet, city employees and architects, contractors and those who would benefit from the proposed projects, were making the major decisions, directing the meetings and ultimately acting in Harris’ or their best interest rather than the community’s.

In essence they said the vision teams were a mechanism for the mayor to construct many new city projects with little oversight from the Council, yet the ability to blame the vision team leaders for the often excessive expenditures.

Critics, including legislators, cited the fact that the vision teams exempted themselves from the state sunshine law, which requires specific procedures in announcing meetings, setting agendas and keeping minutes.

Sen. Vice President Donna Kim, D-Kalihi, a former council member, proposed legislation two years ago that would have required these vision team meetings to be subject to state sunshine law, but the mayor, his cabinet and corporation council argued vehemently against the legislation and lobbied heavily for its defeat.

Another common criticism: Vision teams gave the city government the excuse to condemn private property for the “greater good” of the community. For example, the city threatened to condemn the Aiea Sugar Mill property owned by then Crazy Shirts head Rick Ralston, and with the threat, led to the new buyers’ quick exodus.

Ralston invested millions of dollars in the purchase and clean up of the property, which used to house the sugar mill in Aiea, a landmark in the community.

But when Ralston moved to parcel the property and resell it to regain some of his losses caused by delay in construction of his store and by higher clean up costs of the contamination property, the Aiea Visioning Team voted to have the city condemn the property.

The effort was headed by then city employee, now City Council Chair Gary Okino, who voted to have the city condemn the property so it could be turned into a community park.

The announcement, and the city’s posting of its own logo on the property led to the buyers, many in escrow, to ditch their purchase and cut their thousands of dollars in losses put into designs costs before their losses increased.

Ralston soon after had to declare bankruptcy and lost his once thriving company and his property.

Managing Director Lee told the media that the city administration still wants vision teams to list with priority projects annually, which will be considered for inclusion in the mayor’s budget. But these projects will not longer have a guaranteed approval.

Djou says he would prefer a moratorium on vision teams altogether, without the mayor’s proposed expansion of their scope and purpose.

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