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: