Off the Beat: Deception at Honolulu Hale

Civil Beat
By The Civil Beat Staff

There’s a shroud over Honolulu Hale, but it can’t hide the black eye.

We’ve been bothered this week by a recently released string of emails involving the future of the Waikiki Natatorium.

Those emails outlined how the state plans to take back the World War II monument from Honolulu’s control.

But they also showed how city and state officials planned to cover up the news by intentionally playing dumb with members of the media. Some of this crossed the line into outright lying.

This is not OK. You should be outraged.

Our expectation is that when we ask questions, particularly of our government officials, that we are getting truthful answers that can be backed up by real facts.

This was not the case with the Waikiki Natatorium. Public relations strategizing and deception took over.

The Natatorium has been the focus of controversy for decades. Several citizen groups have been battling for years over what should be done with the site.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s staff was worried about public backlash for his plan to turn the memorial into a beach volleyball arena.

There was also the Honolulu mayor’s race to consider.

Mayor Peter Carlisle was in a hotly contested primary, and the implication from the emails is that city officials didn’t want voters to know that $750,000 was likely wasted on studies that would no longer be useful.

While the state’s plan to spin the situation isn’t necessarily surprising, the city’s tactics reached a level of deception that should be unacceptable.

As members of the public and the media began to ask questions about the Natatorium — including two Civil Beat reporters — city officials orchestrated a campaign to frustrate and mislead those individuals by dodging questions and playing semantics.

One of the most egregious examples of this comes from Carlisle’s press secretary, Louise Kim McCoy.

When asked by KITV reporter Catherine Cruz if an environmental impact statement for the Natatorium had been cancelled, Kim McCoy told her it hadn’t.

But in an email to her city colleagues, Kim McCoy said Cruz “did NOT ask about the status of the EIS so I did not have to say it was put on hold.”

You can read much more about the emails and what they said in Civil Beat’s stories earlier this week.

But let’s call this what it is — a violation of the public’s trust. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.

DISCUSSION: Should city and state officials answer questions truthfully and give the public information it asks for?

New emails raise more questions about Waikiki Natatorium talks

KITV4 News


HONOLULU – The Kaimana Beach Coalition released more emails this weekend that raises questions about the influence of a group that it is at odds with.

The Friends of the Natatorium which supports total restoration of the war memorial, offered to have the head of the Waikiki Improvement Association write the directive to allow the state take back control of the war memorial, Rick Egged wants to make it clear.

“I didn’t volunteer to do it, I was volunteered,” said Egged.

Egged believes, the unusual request for someone in the private sector do government work, was because back when he worked as planning director for former Governor Ben Cayetano, he actually drafted a letter rescinding the executive order that transfered the state-owned natatorium to the city to operate.

Egged said the letter was never sent, because then mayor Jeremy Harris announced plans to renovate the memorial.

Egged wanted to emphasis that the Waikiki Improvement Association’s position has been clear all along.

“We don’t favor either side into the discussion, into the future of the natatorium we simply want to facilitate something being done,” said Egged.

Egged said he personally favors a new aquarium.

“Whether it’s a new beach, or an aquarium, or restoration with a volleyball court, all of those things would be positive, but allowing it to crumble is not.”

Donna Ching, of the Friends group initially told KITV this weekend she had no involvement in the project talks, although the emails show otherwise.

She then released this statement: “The Friends of the Natatorium fully support the governor’s initiative to have the state assume responsibility for the preservation of the war memorial natatorium.”

Ching also rebuffed any connection with the latest renovation effort and her job at Leo Daly, the architectural firm which the city paid to do renovation studies once before.

Meanwhile, the city has moved to make more emergency repairs to the natatorium.

One week after KITV showed pictures of the growing cracks along the natatorium walls and in the bathrooms, the city moved to cover them up.

$60,000 in emergency repairs which included concrete and fence work was completed Sept. 20.

Caldwell Against Gov’s Natatorium Plan, Cayetano Wants More Info

Excerpted from Civil Beat
By Alia Wong

Joe Rubin/Civil Beat

When it comes to the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium, neither of Honolulu’s two mayoral candidates fully support the state’s plan to replace the dilapidated structure with a volleyball arena or concert venue.

Since 2009, at the recommendation of a 17-member city task force, the city had been working on a plan to demolish the memorial and create another beach.

But it turns out, according to a recently released chain of internal emails between city and state officials, that Gov. Neil Abercrombie has for months had other ideas for the site. He prefers to convert the long-unused swimming pool into a beach volleyball court and perhaps use the site as a place to hold outdoor performances.

A decades-old heated debate about what to do with the Natatorium — built as a memorial for World War 1 veterans — has left the site in disrepair.

The recent emails revealed not only the state’s plans for the site but also a concerted effort by city and state officials to keep the public from finding out what was up. Media reports on those efforts to hide the truth have pushed the issue even further into the limelight.

And so it was one of several questions posed to Kirk Caldwell and Ben Cayetano at a one-hour forum at the Harris United Methodist Church Monday.

Both were asked to explain what they think should be done with the Natatorium.

Rather than siding with the task force or the state, Cayetano proposed finding a compromise between the plans.

“There are good arguments on both sides of the issue,” he said, adding that his position centers on preserving Kaimana Beach as a gathering place for locals.

“The beach there is probably the last beach that we will have for our local residents in Waikiki. Once you take that away, you’re taking away something that can never be put back.”

“I think the governor’s right. I don’t blame him,” he said. “I think he wants to have concerts and volleyball … I don’t see why that can’t happen without building a stadium. That’s the kind of compromise I’m talking about.”

Cayetano said that he intends to talk with Abercrombie to understand why he wants a volleyball court.

Caldwell, on the other hand, said he supports the task force’s decision.

“The task force started, the EIS (environmental impact statement) is in progress, money is being spent,” he said.

The city until recently had been going forward with $1.3 million worth of studies, including the EIS.

He noted the Natatorium’s decrepit state and speculated that a thunderstorm or earthquake could easily tear the structure down.

“Enough talking — it’s time for action,” he said.

The task force plan entails demolishing the pool, moving the arches back, building groins — barriers built into the sea from the beach to prevent erosion — and ultimately creating an additional beach.

The governor’s idea would require the city to rebuild the walls — a project that would cost roughly $30 million, Caldwell said.

“Now, if I were mayor and Governor Abercrombie decided to rescind the executive order, I’d say be my guest — take it back and spend the money,” he said. “But my request would be to fix it, get it back up to where it was … I hope this isn’t another 40 years of political football. It’s just shameful — right in the heart of Waikiki, right at this base of Diamond Head, honoring those who gave their ultimate sacrifice in World War I. We dishonor them every day by talking and not acting.”

Both Cayetano and Caldwell condemned the stealthy decision-making revealed in the emails.

Cayetano said the media’s exposure of the emails would ensure similar procedures don’t happen in the future.

Caldwell criticized the officials for their “behind-the-scenes” approach.

The Natatorium Emails, Part 2: State Considers How Best To Spin It

Civil Beat
By Sophie Cocke

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium
coconut wireless

For months, Gov. Neil Abercrombie has intended to take the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium back from the city to build a world-class volleyball arena.

The trick? To do it in way that doesn’t touch off a public backlash or media firestorm.

That’s according to state emails obtained by Jim Bickerton, an attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition. The coalition opposes the governor’s plans and got the emails last week through a public records request. The group has been sharing them widely with local media to demonstrate what it believes is inappropriate secret meetings between the state, city and business interests aimed at keeping concerned citizens in the dark.

Until recently, the city was moving forward with plans to tear down the structure based on a 2009 recommendation of a 17-member city task force convened by former Mayor Mufi Hannemann. The cost of the project was roughly estimated at $15 million, according to Bickerton.

Civil Beat reported Friday on how government officials worked to shield information about the Natatorium’s impending transfer from the city to the state, based on a separate set of emails between city and state officials and others. In particular, top city officials didn’t want the public to know that about $750,000 in studies to remove the pool had likely been wasted. The emails show they dodged media questions about the project and in some cases were less than truthful in the answers they did give.

The implication is that Mayor Peter Carlisle, who was running for re-election, didn’t want any public fallout before the Aug. 11 primary. He lost in the primary to former Gov. Ben Cayetano and former Honolulu managing director Kirk Caldwell.

This set of emails looks more closely at what was going on from the state’s end of things.

Abercrombie’s staff was also concerned about the information getting out before they could make the plan more palatable to the public.

And an August email from Abercrombie spokesman Jim Boersema indicates that top Abercrombie advisors, including Michael Ng, a policy analyst, felt it was better to wait until a new mayor and city council were in place at the end of the year before officially taking the Natatorium back.

In August, Boersema wrote to Bruce Coppa, Abercrombie’s chief of staff, and Blake Oshiro, the deputy chief of staff:

I talked to Mikey in Policy and he said he would be giving you guys a draft Executive Order, probably next month, that would transfer the Natatrolum from the City to the State — but Mikey said it might be best to wait until after a new Mayor and City Council are inaugurated to give their stamp of approval.

The Natatorium has been transferred back and forth between the state and city over the years. Plans have changed and funding has come and gone, while the Natatorium continues to decay and poses a public health hazard.

Outside Influence

News of Abercrombie’s intentions were leaked in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser column by Richard Borecca in April, raising concerns among state officials and Donna Ching, vice president of The Friends of the Natatorium, which has worked for years to have the pool restored.

Ching, who the emails show had easy access to Abercrombie officials, writes that publicity about the state transfer could hurt public opinion of the governor and make it harder for the state to negotiate a “dowry” from the city.

In an email to Abercrombie advisors, Oshiro, Coppa and Marvin Wong, she points out that the city has earmarked millions for the Natatorium:

If the story breaks in the news before the State and City have worked out the details AND before all preservation partners and allies can be briefed on messages they can use to support the Governor’s decision, two things might be in jeopardy:

  1. The State’s negotiating position with the City
  2. The Governor’s standing in the court of public opinion

On the first point:

  • Under Mayor Hannemann, more than $6 million from the restoration appropriation was returned to the general fund
  • There is an estimated $100 million scheduled/projected for the Natatorium in the FY2014 budget
  • There is a need for a permanent home for the District 1 lifeguard office, which is currently in the Natatorium and which, ideally, would remain there

The City has a significant financial motive to get “help from the State and/or (public private partnership) to preserve the Natatorium and keep the lifeguards there. It seems to me that the State could negotiate a “dowry” from the City in return for reclaiming responsibility for the Memorial.

Ching is also director of development for Leo A Daly, an architecture and planning firm which had a contract to restore the Natatorium a decade ago before plans changed.

Emails show that she consulted heavily with Abercrombie and his staff on the plans. The emails also show communications between other staff of Leo A Daly and Rick Egged, president of the the Waikiki Improvement Association, which represents Waikiki hotels and a host of other local businesses.

In one email to Abercrombie’s top advisors, Ching even offers to have Egged draft the governor’s executive order to take back the Natatorium.

“If you would like Rick Egged’s assistance with a first draft, he is happy to provide,” she writes in an April email to Coppa, Oshiro, Ng and Wong.

In the same email she recommends that the state choose a different contractor than Wil Chee Planning Inc. to complete environmental studies. Wil Chee was awarded a $1.3 million contract with the city to do the environmental impact statement and other studies related to plans to tear down the Natatorium.

Based on (recorded) statements made at the Mayor’s 2009 Task Force meetings by representatives of Wil Chee planners, the firm contracted by the Hanneman administration for the demolition EIS, that the state would be better served by subsequently choosing a new lead planning firm to guide the rest of the EIS and permitting process.

In an email to Civil Beat this weekend, Ching stressed that there was no “profit motive” involved in her communications with state officials.

“I do not have any business-related interest in the project,” she wrote “My commitment to the restoration and reopening of the Natatorium is strictly personal, rooted in my childhood memories of swimming their with my grandfather, in my strong belief in the obligation we owe our veterans as Americans and citizens of Hawaii, and in my conviction that — on the facts — restoration is the right path from the financial, environmental, cultural and historical perspectives.”

A Commercial Free Beach

The Kaimana Beach Coalition has been adamantly opposed to commercial interests playing a role in plans for the Natatorium. The group says that Kaimana Beach and the adjoining area where the pool sits is the only spot of shoreline left in tourist-centric Waikiki for locals.

“To me, it’s clear that some people have a seat at the table and that the public doesn’t,” Bickerton told Civil Beat. “There’s nobody representing the interests of ordinary people that just want to go to the beach one day after working their two jobs and living in their 800 square-foot condo.”

“Nobody is representing those people, and that’s sad. Because this is forever, what we do now is forever.”

Abercrombie said earlier this month that the Natatorium could be a good project for the Public Land Development Corporation — a private development arm of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, which is tasked with developing public lands with the help of private companies.

The emails show that talk of bringing in private funding to help renovate the Natatorium began as early as March.

Ching set up a meeting with the the governor in April to “discuss private fundraising for the Natatorium,” including a public-private partnership. The meeting included Egged and Peter Apo, who runs a private consulting firm that specializes in cultural advisement for the tourism industry, according to emails.

Bickerton said that the influence of private business, the hotel industry in particular, was disturbing.

“I do think that we can see the PLDC in action here,” he said. “And we are going to get a taste of how it is used to team up with corporate interests to use public resources for the benefit of the few.”

Abercrombie spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz did not return a call for comment.

But Abercrombie defended the PLDC last week in an interview with Civil Beat.

“The Natatorium is a good example — very good example,” said the governor of potential projects for the PLDC. “The Natatorium has deteriorated steadily now for decades, and every time somebody comes up with an idea — right? — there appears to be again the idea that you have suspicions and people rush in and they shoot down those particular ideas, and then when they go away everybody leaves. And it continues to deteriorate.”

Have DLNR Take the Lead

Plans for the Natatorium picked up after the legislative session ended in May, and policy advisors began to contemplate ways to execute the transfer to the state in a way that didn’t alarm the public.

Top advisors were concerned that if Abercrombie just took the Natatorium back and plowed ahead with his own plans, it wouldn’t play well with the public.

In an August email to Oshiro, Wendy Clerinx, the governor’s policy director, discussed creating a state task force, though this could be problematic as well:

Mufi’s task force was convened just three years ago so I don’t know how much excitement there would be to do the same thing again so soon and of course there’s the chance that the task force would come up with a recommendation that the Governor doesn’t like – the last one recommended the Natatorium structure be demolished and a memorial beach be constructed in its place. Another alternative, which I know would wildly excite you, is for Governor to issue an Executive Order that cancels (former Gov. Ariyoshi’s executive order) and do whatever he wants with the site.

The last choice didn’t seem like a good idea to Oshiro and Coppa.

“I agree we have DLNR take the lead,” wrote Coppa in an email to Oshiro.

State officials decided to have DLNR create a task force, but make it clear that the governor wanted the task force to choose a volleyball arena or some platform for concerts.

A week later, Clerinx sent an email to DLNR chair William Aila and other top DLNR officials informing them of the governor’s wishes:

The City and County of Honolulu had a taskforce on the issue just three years ago. It is not the Governor’s intent to make DLNR duplicate this work, rather it would be to take their work and launch off of that in a very limited scope. The past recommendation was to do some kind of a memorial beach. The Governor is not interested in revisiting the options of doing nothing, fully restoring the structure, and restoring the original shoreline. He would like to restore the area to be used as some kind of venue/recreational area such as for beach volleyball or concerts.

Aila got moving on the plan. An experienced waterman, he conducted a dive at the Natatorium to check if there was any coral, which could make plans to restore the structure more difficult.

Clerinx asked Ng, a top policy analyst, if he wanted to go along.

But Ng had a scheduling conflict:

Damn. I have to go to a meeting re sewers. Ugh. This sounds WAY more interesting.

Aila didn’t find any coral.

You can read the emails here:

Group claims Natatorium planning being done ‘behind the scenes’

Hawaii News Now
By Ben Gutierrez

WAIKIKI (HawaiiNewsNow) – A group that wants to preserve the beach area near the Waikiki Natatorium contends that Gov. Neil Abercrombie is moving behind the scenes to use the aging war memorial as a venue for beach volleyball or concerts.

The Kaimana Beach Coalition obtained e-mails and other documents through the Freedom of Information Act. In one e-mail dated August 8, 2012, the governor’s policy director, Wendy Clerinx, says, “The governor is not interested in revisiting the options of doing nothing, restoring the structure, and restoring the original shoreline. He would like to restore the area to be used as some kind of venue/recreational area such as for beach volleyball or concerts.”

In another e-mail, dated August 1, 2012, Abercrombie’s deputy chief of staff, Blake Oshiro, tells Clerinx, “But the goal is to keep the structure (not demolish pool), but perhaps build on top of it (not fill since walls cannot withstand weight) and use as a venue like beach volleyball or concerts.”

“It may be fun for a few nights a year to have a concert there, but it cuts down on beach parking and beach access for regular people,” said Kaimana Beach Coalition attorney Jim Bickerton, who released the documents.

Bickerton said the group supports one of the original options — that of keeping the arches of the current structure, demolishing the pool area and restoring the beach. Bickerton contends that the documents show that the governor and others, including the hotel industry, are meeting privately on the issue.

“They’re meeting with the Friends of the Natatorium, and going to see the governor and mayor together. that’s something we didn’t know. We suspected it, but these e-mails prove that it’s happening, so that has us alarmed,” Bickerton said.

The possibility of building beach volleyball courts at the Natatorium is something Abercrombie has spoken about before. In May, on Sunrise, the governor said, “I’m working on something right now in regards to beach volleyball and a venue for it. I’m not — I can’t elaborate on it completely right now, but think about the Natatorium and think about sand volleyball and how wonderful it would be if we could feature our sand volleyball players in Waikiki.”

In response to the release of the documents, the governor’s office issued a statement, which said, “The governor is committed to making improvements to the Natatorium.”

Donna Ching, vice president of the Friends of the Natatorium, supported what it calls the governor’s initiative to have the state assume primary responsibility to preserve the memorial. “Returning the ‘living memorial’ to its dedicated use as a public gathering place should have been done decades ago. We applaud the City and State’s efforts to work together to facilitate a resolution that honors the more than 10,000 from Hawaii who served in World War I and allows future generations of kama’aina to have access to this iconic treasure of Hawaii’s history,” she said.

But the coalition opposes the possibility of having the Natatorium turned into a volleyball or concert venue. “We don’t have much of Waikiki left. The hotels have the whole western side, the condos and the private clubs have the eastern end, and there’s just a little piece in between that’s left for the public,” said Bickerton.

To view the documents released by the Kaimana beach Coalition, click here and here.

Previous story: Gov. serves up volleyball idea at Waikiki Natatorium

Copyright 2012 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.

Natatorium planning kept under wraps

By Michael Tsai

Emails reveal talks between the state and private interests over the site’s fate

The Hickam Honor Guard retires the colors, walking past the front of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium during the 24th annual Memorial Day commemoration on the lawn fronting the Natatorium earlier this year.

Recently released email correspondence between the state and city officials, executives from a local architectural firm, and leaders from commercial and private interest groups has shed light on what one local attorney characterizes as backroom dealings to determine the fate of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium.

James Bickerton, attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition, requested the correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act last month amid rumors that Gov. Neil Abercrombie and his staff had been meeting secretly with representatives from the city, the Waikiki Improvement Association, the Friends of the Natatorium and others regarded as significant stakeholders in advance of the state reclaiming control of the memorial and repurposing it as a venue for volleyball tournaments, concerts and other public events.

Abercrombie has publically stated that he intends to put an end to decades-long debate over what to do with the dilapidated memorial, which was originally constructed in 1927 to honor military personnel from Hawaii who served in World War I. The natatorium has been closed since 1979 because of safety concerns.

The natatorium is owned by the state but controlled by the city under an executive order by former Gov. George Ariyoshi. In 2009, a task force charged with coming up with a final answer to the ongoing political debate surrounding the natatorium voted 9-3 in favor of demolishing the facility while retaining its famous archway as a permanent memorial. Then-Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann accepted the recommendation, but further action has been slowed by ongoing planning, financing and assessment issues.

Abercrombie and current Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle have already discussed a plan that would involve a new executive order returning control of the site to the state. However, Abercrombie has yet to issue the order.

Bickerton said the Kaimana Beach Coalition supports the previously adopted plan to move the archway inland and establish the newly cleared area as a public beach park. He said his group has been excluded from the governor’s recent planning meetings.

“We’ve learned from past experience that hidden behind these projects where large sums of money are involved are usually private interests,” said Bickerton, who has been involved in the natatorium debate since 1998. “We wanted to find out who the governor has been meeting with.”

Bickerton’s FOIA request yielded scores of emails dating back to March that indicate a renewed drive to address the natatorium issue.

An Aug. 8 email from Wendy Clerinx, Abercrombie’s policy director, to state Department of Land and Natural Resources Director William Aila Jr. and other DLNR officials — and copied to Abercrombie policy analyst Michael Ng — acknowledged the earlier task force recommendation but stated:

“The Governor is not interested in revisiting the options of doing nothing, fully restoring the structure, and restoring the original shoreline. He would like to restore the area to be used as some kind of venue/recreational area such as for beach volleyball or concerts.”

The emails also indicate that the governor’s office had been in regular contact with Waikiki business leaders regarding the project.

An Aug. 9 email from Jim Boersema, Abercrombie’s communication director, to Chief of Staff Bruce Coppa and Deputy Chief of Staff Blake Oshiro references an upcoming draft of an executive order returning control of the natatorium to the state. In it, Boersema notes that he will “pass on to the Waikiki Improvement Assoc. and Hawaii Hotel Assoc. guys that the document is being developed and will be implemented with the City around year’s end …”

A reply from Oshiro instructs Boersema to “not be so definitive” regarding Abercrombie’s plans.

“We will probably want to meet with the Friends of the Natatorium soon, after the primary, to confirm that nothing has changed,”  Oshiro wrote. “We then need to do more evaluation and due diligence on the issue, before we would be ready to publically announce that we are preparing an executive order to take it back.”

The emails also revealed a concerted effort by those who support the development of the property as a stadium attraction to control both the flow of information to the public and the way in which such information would be presented.

In an April 16 email to Ng, Friends of the Natatorium Vice President Donna Ching expressed concern over an upcoming column by the Star-Advertiser’s Richard Borreca regarding the governor’s plans for the natatorium. Ching told Ng that she and Waikiki Improvement Association President Rick Egged, both of whom were contacted for the column, did not give Borreca “anything he can use,” but later stated:

“Disclosure of the Governor’s plan in the press before he is ready to announce it himself, and before preservation advocates are armed with the messages they need to support him, would leave the Governor vulnerable to Rick Bernstein trying — incorrectly — to paint him as anti-environment and dismissive of the public sentiment reflected in the report of the City’s (sham) task force. If the plan moves forward quickly enough for the Governor to announce it on his own terms, and with coordinated support, it will be to his political benefit.”

Bernstein is the founder of the Kaimana Beach Coalition.

Ching also serves as director of business development for the Leo A Daly architectural firm, which has been involved in previous natatorium studies, assessments and planning.

Bickerton expressed dismay at the apparent influence of the Waikiki Improvement Association, Leo A Daly and other “commercial interests” in deciding the natatorium site’s future use.

“The hotels control the west end of Waikiki, and the luxury condos and beach clubs control the far-east side,” Bickerton said by telephone. “All that’s left for local people is that little stretch in between. We need to think about how the governor’s plan is going to impact parking in the area and beach access along the most valuable stretch of beach in the state.”

City, state e-mails reveal attempts to deceive public

KITV4 News

A trail of e-mails between the city and state has uncovered an attempt to keep the public in the dark about backroom talks underway over the fate of the Waikiki Natatorium.

William Aila: Sleep Well! The Natatorium Will Soon Be Mine

Waikiki Natatorium

Civil Beat
By Sophie Cocke

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium has been closed since 1979.

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium has been closed since 1979.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie decided to take the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium back from the city in July to build a volleyball arena. The challenge for top city officials was how to keep the media and public from finding out about it.

That’s according to internal emails between city and state officials shared with Civil Beat on Friday, which show city officials scrambling to handle repeated media requests throughout the summer about what was going on with the Natatorium.

A 17-member city task force recommended in 2009 that the decaying swimming pool that has been closed for three decades be torn down and the space filled in with sand to create a beach. Until recently, the city was moving ahead with $1.3 million in studies, including an environmental impact statement, on the proposal.

Jim Bickerton, an attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition, obtained the emails through a public records request.

The coalition was furious when it found out last month that the studies on the plan to tear down the Natatorium had been stopped. The group wants the area to be a traditional public beach, free of commercial interests.

The state owns the Natatorium, but the city has been in charge of managing it through an executive order.

The debate about what to do with the Natatorium has raged for half a century. The state and city have batted control of the memorial back and forth for years, amid competing agendas, as well as a reluctance on the part of government officials to be stuck with the bill. It will costs millions of dollars to deal with the dilapidated structure. Meanwhile, the pool, which has become an eyesore in Waikiki and is lined with “Danger, Keep Out Signs” remains a public health hazard.

While Abercrombie’s office told Civil Beat in August that the governor was still deciding on whether to take the Natatorium back, emails between the head of the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and the city’s director of design and construction, indicate a decision was finalized in mid-July.

The reaction of the city director? Pure elation.

Lori Kahikina, director of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, sent an email to DLNR Chair William Aila in early July asking for confirmation on the governor’s intention to rescind the executive order and take back the Natatorium to create a volleyball facility.

Aila responds:

I will check with the Governor for his take and get back to you. Don’t smile until I hear it from his lips!

On July 12, Kahikina sent another email to Aila expressing her hope that the state was indeed going to take the Natatorium back. She writes:

I’m still holding my breath and crossing my fingers and toes. HA! Were you able to get clarification from the Governor? Is the hot potato in your lap or mine?

(Kahikina struck a different tone when Civil Beat interviewed her about the Natatorium just last month, saying she had “no strong feelings either way” as to whether the project remained with the city or was transferred to the state.)

Aila, in good humor, wrote Kahikina back on July 15, reassuring her that the problem would soon be his:

The hot potato is my court. I am will be attending meetings on Hawaii Island next week, I will schedule meeting with you first/second week in August. Sleep well! The Natatorium will soon be mine after we figure out a transition plan.

Kahikina didn’t hold back her excitement:

NO WAY!!!! You totally made my day, month, year!!! Hehe Seriously, we will work together to make sure everything transitions smoothly.

She then forwarded the email exchange to Mayor Peter Carlisle, thanking him for his help in the matter:

Mayor Peter Carlisle . . . . YOU ARE DA MAN!!!!! Thank you for all your help on this one. Our staff will begin to gather all of our files and will ensure the transition is smooth and seamless.

Spin Campaign

Abercrombie has made no secret in the past of his interest in a volleyball arena.

As early as May, he told Hawaii News Now that “I can’t elaborate on it completely right now, but think about the Natatorium and think about sand volleyball and how wonderful it would be if we could feature our sand volleyball players in Waikiki.”

And, according to the email trail, the governor told Carlisle in July that he could publicly announce plans to transfer the memorial to the state.

But Carlisle, who was fighting to retain his seat as mayor, made no such announcement — not in July, and not in August. He lost the primary last month to former governor, Ben Cayetano, and Kirk Caldwell, who are now in a runoff.

He did say when asked during a mayoral debate on July 11 that he was in discussions with Abercrombie about a volleyball court.

Since then, the party line has remained that no final decision has been made on the Natatorium. Indeed, Abercrombie could be having second thoughts.

But what city officials apparently didn’t want reporters or the public to know is that hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ money has likely been wasted on studies that are no longer needed.

The city paid out $750,000 on a $1.3 million contract to Wil Chee Planning Inc. for the EIS and other studies related to plans to demolish the swimming pool and move the arches back to the the seawall. Carlisle quietly stopped the studies in May.

But this isn’t what Kahikina told KITV reporter Catherine Cruz in July when she called to ask about the status of the EIS.

Cruz asked whether the EIS was supposed to be done soon. Kahikina told her that it wasn’t supposed to be done until the end of the year. She didn’t bother to mention that the city had completely stopped work on it and in fact it wasn’t expected to be finished at all.

The situation flared up in August when the Kaimana Beach Coalition found out that the studies had indeed been stopped and started spreading that news to reporters.

When Cruz called the city to ask about the EIS, top officials devised a public relations plan: Say the study was put on hold, not cancelled.

The mayor’s press secretary, Louise Kim McCoy, took the deception a step further. In an August 21 email to William Aila, Jim Fulton, Carlisle’s executive assistant, and Kahikina, she wrote the following:

Just got off the phone with Cruz and told her the EIS is not cancelled and the City is still in discussions with the State.

She did NOT ask about the status of the EIS so I did not have to say that it was put on hold.

By the following day, the city was fending off media inquires, including those of Civil Beat, while saying as little as possible.

Kahikina briefed Aila on the situation and told him that she had made sure not to tell reporters from Civil Beat, KITV and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that state and city officials would be touring the Natatorium in a couple of weeks:

I did NOT tell them about our field visit scheduled at the end of the month. I did not want a media frenzy out there.

Friends of the Natatorium Enjoy a Seat at the Table

The emails also show that Donna Ching, vice president of the The Friends of the Natatorium, had repeated meetings and communications with state and city officials about the Natatorium. Ching, the nemesis of the Kaimana Beach Coalition, has worked for years to have the the Natatorium rebuilt or restored.

Ching is also development director for Leo A Daly, an architecture and planning firm, which had a contract to restore the Natatorium under former Mayor Jeremy Harris.

Apparently, she was involved in the city spin campaign. In an email to Fulton and Kahikina, Ching congratulates Kahikina on her responses to Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter, Gordon Pang, and asks her to thank Abercrombie spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz. She notes that Rick Bernstein, a member of the Kaimana Beach Coalition, was causing trouble again.

Jim and Lori, FYI. The FoN is working on our strategy for a public response (if any) — below are some of our talking pOints. Lori, great job on the quotes to Gordon Pang. Rick Bernstein clearly shook a few reporter’s trees to see who/what would fallout. You guys did a nice job of holding the line. Thank Donalyn for us, too. Aloha, Donna

You can read the string of emails here:

Government Natatorium Communications 11-1-2011 to 8-22-2012
September 17, 2012
(PDF format, 2.8MB)

This document is also available at Scribd here.

Abercrombie: PLDC Could Help Waikiki Natatorium

Gov. Neil Abercrombie speaking with KITV and Civil Beat in executive chambers, Sept. 18, 2012.

Civil Beat
By Chad Blair

Gov. Neil Abercrombie speaking with KITV and Civil Beat in executive chambers, Sept. 18, 2012.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie speaking with KITV and Civil Beat in executive chambers, Sept. 18, 2012.

The Public Land Development Corporation could help resolve the longstanding morass over what to do with the Waikiki Natatorium.

That comes from Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who spoke to Civil Beat and KITV Tuesday in executive chambers following a media event.

The governor this week fought back against critics of the controversial PLDC, which was created by the Hawaii Legislature only last year but has come under harsh criticism recently from groups already calling for its repeal.

Though the agency has yet to begin work on a project to make better use of government lands, environmental, labor and Native Hawaiian groups argue the PLDC has too much flexibility to bypass important laws intended to protect the state’s natural assets.

On Tuesday, Abercrombie reiterated that the agency could help with projects that have broad support such as workforce housing, new schools and assisted-living facilities.

He also named a specific project — the Waikiki Natatorium, a swimming pool on the coast near Diamond Head that has been closed to the public since 1979.

“The natatorium is a good example — very good example,” said the governor. “The natatorium has deteriorated steadily now for decades, and every time somebody comes up with an idea — right? — there appears to be again the idea that you have suspicions and people rush in and they shoot down those particular ideas, and then when they go away everybody leaves. And it continues to deteriorate.”

Would Kaimana Beach Disappear With the Waikiki Natatorium?

A vision of what the beach could be, based on engineering descriptions.

Civil Beat
By Sophie Cocke

Kaimana Beach, also known as Sans Souci Beach, is a small haven for locals along the Waikiki shoreline, an international tourist destination that attracts several million tourists annually.

Maybe that’s because visitors strolling along the beachwalk toward Diamond Head run up against a foreboding concrete structure filled with rebar and decorated with “Danger Keep Out” signs.

It’s the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium. And it’s enough to make a tourist turn back before they reach Kaimana on the other side.

As the debate over what to do with the decaying structure flares back up, so has the question of what will happen to Kaimana Beach if the cavernous saltwater swimming pool with arena seating, that has remained closed and padlocked for more than three decades, is torn down.

“People say poor Kaimana Beach will vanish if you take it down,” said Jim Bickerton, an attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition, which is pushing for the creation of a public beach. “Nobody is proposing taking it down and letting nature take its course.”

Beach Would Quickly Erode

Indeed, without the Natatorium, there would be no beach.

“I don’t think there is any delusion about it,” said Jim Anderson, treasurer of the Friends of the Natatorium, which favors restoring the Natatorium. “If you could join the Star Wars coalition and press a button and make the Natatorium disappear, Kaimana Beach would disappear. There is no question about it.”

The structure that jets out into the ocean is what created the small crescent beach, causing sand to accumulate on its east side. That beach will quickly erode if the Natatorium is demolished, according to studies.

But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plan to keep the beach, and create a new one where the Natatorium currently sits.

If Kaimana Beach is to continue to exist, a groin that jets out perpendicular to the shoreline and supports the Natatorium would have to remain, and another groin to the west would have to be constructed to make a new beach where the pool used to rest, according to studies conducted by Waimanalo-based Sea Engineering.

The cost of the plan, including constructing a new groin and trucking in sand, would be about $5.2 million, or $110 per square foot of new beach, according to the report. Ongoing maintenance costs would range from $25,000 to $50,000 a year.

A vision of what the beach could be, based on engineering descriptions.

While not the most natural of beaches, the string of beaches along Waikiki is largely engineered. Draining of wetlands, shoreline development and seawalls have largely destroyed the wide beach that used to exist, according to a report by the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. The beaches, which continue to erode and narrow, have had to be continually replenished by imported sand.

While even opponents of the plan to remove the memorial say that the groins can maintain a beach, the decades-old debate about what do do with the Natatorium isn’t set to die down anytime soon.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie indicated last month that he would take back control of the Natatorium, a state property that’s operated by the city. He’s considering filling in the swimming pool and building a volleyball court.

The city, based on recommendations of a 17-member community task force in 2009, had been moving to tear down the Natatorium.

The governor’s plan outraged supporters of removing the structure, such as the Kaimana Beach Coalition, and set the stage for a new chapter in the ongoing saga over what do with the memorial to World War I veterans.

Abercrombie is likely to make a decision on whether to issue an executive order that gives the state control of the memorial before next year’s legislative session starts in January. If he does, it would be the fifth time in 80 years that a governor has revoked the city’s management of the Natatorium, according to information from the Historic Hawaii Foundation.

DISCUSSION: Do you think that the engineered beaches are a good idea?

Do not be misled by vested interests who want to “restore the Natatorium to it’s original splendor” and then convert the dysfunctional Monument into a privatized tourist destination. This would close off parking and thus beach access to Kaimana Beach and the adjoining park area. The public loss of access to a precious recreational resource for the profit of a few promoters, contractors, and engineers is unspeakable. It would be the final concession to the tourist industry.

With proper groins (leaving and enhancing the Diamond Head and Ewa walls of the existing Natatorium swimming pool), Kaimana Beach will be safe from erosion when a new Memorial Beach is built at the site of the existing Natatorium. Kaimana Beach will remain the same great beach it has always been.

The Natatorium Task Force studied this issue thoroughly for five months and voted to remove the structure and create a beach. The principal reason for their decision was financial. It would cost about $15 million for a new beach compared to $60 million for the demolition and rebuilding the Natatorium which would be necessary because of its advanced state of deterioration. Take the temptation of a 2,500 seat stadium-by-the-sea out of the equation. This precious sliver of oceanfront real estate must remain free of commercialization and accessible to all who enjoy and appreciate the value of being able to access, swim and recreate at the beach and in the park. By removing the decaying structure the area will be reborn to what nature intended it to be, a living beach reconnected to the ocean.

Finally, the Mayor and the Governor suspended the nearly completed Memorial Beach Environmental Impact Statement that we as tax payers paid $750,000 for. The EIS would have proven that the existing Natatorium site could make a viable beach. Call Governor Abercrombie and Mayor Carlisle and ask them nicely why they stopped the study. Why was this nearly completed study stopped, thus canceling the option of a Memorial Beach from the discussion? We say Save Kaimana Beach and create a new living monument, a new Memorial Beach.

Rick Bernstein
Kaimana Beach Coalition
Natatorium Task Force member