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Douglas Chin

Mayor-elect Peter Carlisle's choice to be city managing director is the same man who had his back in the city prosecutor's office

By Dave Koga


Fun fact: Doug Chin has a perfect sense of pitch. "That means that if you play a song, then I know exactly what all the notes are," says Chin, Honolulu's acting prosecuting attorney and Mayor-elect Peter Carlisle's nominee for managing director.

"At times it's a detriment because I actually can hear if something's off-key, and it can be hard for me to completely enjoy music. I really can tell when somebody is 'pitchy.'"

Chin's gift came out of his childhood in Seattle where his Chinese immigrant parents -- his father was a civil engineer, his mother a librarian -- made him take up piano and violin.

In the coming weeks and months, Chin says with a laugh, he may have to retune his keen ear to detect sour notes of a different kind as he helps Carlisle try to make the transition from tough-talking crimefighter to big-picture leader with a wide-ranging view.

"Peter is very much a straight talker, meaning he will tell you exactly what he's thinking -- sometimes at his own peril," says Chin, who was hired by Carlisle as a city prosecutor in 1998 and named first deputy in 2006.

Over the years, the two have become strong friends and trusted allies. Chin, it is clear, has his boss' back.

Though an accomplished trial lawyer, Chin has willingly served in the shadows, supervising the day-to-day operations of the prosecutor's office so that Carlisle could do what he does best: "Get outside and connect with the people."

"He's an absolutely gifted administrator," Carlisle told the City Council in introducing Chin. "Many of the times when you saw me immersed in large cases ... I could do that all because of the tremendous skills that Doug has."

Says Chin: "I really respect the fact that it takes a lot of different personalities to make an organization run. Part of the challenge is how you relate to people and how you work with them to bring out their best, and there's a side of me that really enjoys that."

QUESTION: Was it always part of the plan to move to City Hall with Peter if he won?

ANSWER: There are two things I've always enjoyed in my career: One is having been a trial attorney and the other has been working for Peter Carlisle.

I knew that I wasn't going to have both once Peter decided to run for mayor. I had a long-term plan of eventually moving over to the mayor's office, if the mayor-elect was going to have me. But for the time being I was intending to stay at the prosecutor's office. But the prosecutor's race turned out to be a different result than I wanted it to be, and that's when Peter gave me a call.

Q: What did he tell you?

A: He said, "I have bigger plans for you, Doug." And then that's where we started talking about the managing director's office.

Q: What did he tell you about your role as managing director?

A: He didn't need to tell me how he envisioned my role, because we've been working together for a long time. But I know that the way I saw my role was to be someone who works with all the different parties involved to make sure there's communication between the mayor's office and all the entities -- the Council members, the other directors, etc.

One of the things I told the council when I was introduced to them was that I was there to be at their service. I'm not here to tell them what to do but to try to communicate with them and work with them. And the same goes for the directors. One of the things I want to tell them is that, "I'm not here to run you over or to tell you what to do but to really see what I can do to help make your job easier."

Q: You and Peter are new to this governing business. There is also going to be a makeover of the Council. What's going to be the biggest challenge?

A: I see it as a fresh start. I think it's a great opportunity for the city as well as all the voters to be able to have people in office who, for lack of a better way of saying it, may be less political.

I think actually what the voters really want is a government where the people who are running it are not tied to special interests but just really care about serving the city. So I do see it as a big opportunity, but having said that, I also understand that it's important that we try to hold on to the institutional knowledge, the history, that has come from the previous administrations. This is the end of Mayor Hannemann's second term, so really what we're initially trying to do is finish out that term. As much as possible, we want to learn and grow from the institutional knowledge that already exists.

Q: One of the concerns raised about Peter during the campaign was that his entire experience was that of a prosecutor and that he tended to have a black-and-white, legality-based viewpoint. With homeless people in city parks, it was, "Well, they shouldn't be there because they're violating city rules." How do you see him adapting to a political reality where there are so many variables in play?

A: I think when the mayor-elect was being a prosecutor he was doing exactly what the job required. And in many ways, a prosecutor does see the world as black and white. But I think Peter understands the world is a lot more complex than that. I certainly understand that. I think we understand the difficulties that all of us go through. I think what we really want as people who live in Honolulu is a strong, safe city that all of us can afford. The more that we can provide that for people, the better off we'll be.

Q: You're a close personal friend of Peter's. Are you going to be able to disagree with him and strongly advise him against a certain course of action?

A: Yes. And I think that might have had something to do with his selection of me, because he knew that we can communicate with each other and also that I can be able to often take some of the things that he's trying to get accomplished and communicate that to other people.

Q: Have you had any major disagreements with Peter?

A: Yes, I have at times. But I also understand that he's the boss. Having said that, I believe that people who actually get to know the mayor-elect will find that he really is a good listener. Despite how he might come across when he speaks, what you would actually find if you spoke to him one on one is that he's very mindful of people and how they look at things. He is not quick to make judgments. I think that's where a lawyer's training comes in ... to be able to see both sides of an issue.

Q: Tell us about some of the cases you've personally prosecuted.

A: One that I've had the privilege to try was the murder case against Vernon Bartley for the strangulation of his neighbor Karen Ertell. I also prosecuted Danny Friddle, who was sexually molesting a 6-month-old child. And I also prosecuted a soccer coach in the Wahiawa area, Fred Rames, who molested some children in his program.

Q: Peter says you were the person who was essentially running the prosecutor's office on a day-to-day basis. How did you come into that role?

A: I don't think it's any secret that the mayor-elect's strength is his ability to get outside the office and connect with people. And for him to really be able to do that, the most important way that I can support him is to keep the operations running back in the office.

I don't see my role as a managing director as being a particularly visible one. I understand that oftentimes a managing director ends up speaking on various issues, and I welcome that. That's fine. But other than that, I see my role in the mayor's office as being very similar to what it was in the prosecutor's office. Mr. Carlisle will be out there doing what he's doing, connecting with the people, and I'll be doing what I can to keep the operations running smoothly.

Q: I'm guessing that not too many people find great joy in performing administrative tasks. What is it that you like so much?

A: I like solving problems. I think I'm good at listening to people. I like the challenge of trying to mediate people who are on different sides and trying to get them to come to an agreement. If I can ever contribute to creating a win-win situation, I'm always looking for it. I think a lot of times there are win-win situations out there, but you just have to cut through all the personalities and egos to get there.

Q: (Council Chairman) Todd Apo said having former prosecutors in the city's top two positions was "probably not your classic model." What makes you confident you and Peter can go from the prosecutor's office to running one of the larger cities in the nation?

A: I think that the classic model that the citizens of Honolulu would want is a leadership that is transparent, that gives them straight answers and is not political. So in that sense I hope that we can meet the voters' expectations.

But I understand Chair Apo's point of view, and that makes our transition very important, because we need to bring to the table people who can be part of our team, who can round out our strengths and be able to address all the different needs that are going on in the city. I think as long as we can bring other people to the team who can fill any gaps that exist, and as long as we're in good communication with them, then hopefully we'll be in a very good place.

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