comscore City's settling of sewer suits means mayor can collaborate | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Lee Cataluna

City’s settling of sewer suits means mayor can collaborate

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There are many questions following the unexpected announcement this week that the city has agreed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s demand that it upgrade Oahu’s sewer system.

Questions of money, of timing, of motivation. But the biggest question of all: Did Mufi Hannemann feel the love?

In his 2009 State of the City speech, Hannemann was positive and upbeat but saved the verbal firepower for his enemies at the EPA. He vowed to fight what he called the EPA’s outdated water quality standards, and famously said about the situation, "Yes, I know collaboration is the theme of my remarks, but sometimes, when you don’t feel the love, you have to put on the gloves."

Guess the gloves came off, at least long enough to shake hands and do a press conference.

The proposed consent decree would settle lawsuits filed by several environmental groups over the city’s sewage collection system and its treatment of waste water.

Besides the settlement, what’s really newsworthy about this deal is that it’s one of the few times Hannemann—a bulldozer who talks a lot about collaborating and consensus-building—actually did collaborate and compromise to reach consensus. So the guy does have it within himself to back down. That’s progress.

The city still disagrees with the EPA about the necessity of secondary treatment of waste water, but Hannemann said he pursued a settlement to end the years of costly litigation. He also managed to buy more time for the city to put in secondary treatment facilities. The city had received waivers from the EPA in the past, but their time was up.

Sure, this is more about politics than public works. Hannemann settled the sewage litigation in time to move on to campaign for governor without giving Neil Abercrombie that stinky mess to use against him. Hannemann is leaving it to the next mayor to pay for the cost of the upgrades, a legacy that got passed down to him from the Jeremy Harris administration.

To be fair, Hannemann also said in that speech last year that he was looking forward to an improved relationship with the new leadership at the EPA and that he would listen to input from the Sierra Club if its leaders would "focus less on penalizing and disparaging the city and more on providing constructive input toward the challenges and choices we face together."

That was the iron hand in the velvet glove. Or the gentle hand in the boxing glove. Something like that. Hannemann’s metaphors don’t always stand up to analysis.

Better late than never, but dragging this out has only enriched some lawyers and stuck taxpayers with a bigger bill than if the case had been settled years ago. Hannemann has had to raise sewer fees because Harris didn’t want to be the bad guy, and now the next mayor will have to raise them even higher, which is hard to imagine when we already pay more for flushing a toilet than filling the bowl. And where’s the love in that?

Lee Cataluna can be reached at


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