Todd Apo, you’ve served in the City Council for about six years, after a career in law and business. What are you going to do now?
Apo is going to Disney World, in fact, but not in the manner of that iconic advertising series. The 43-year-old City Council chairman, in the midst of his second full term, announced last week that he will be leaving his post just after the general election to take a job as public affairs director in Hawaii for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
The married father of two is no stranger to development, having served as an executive working with Ko Olina Resort & Marina, with a focus on government relations. By 2004, he had landed in government himself, representing the Leeward Coast and Kapolei and Ewa communities at the Council.
But before he takes over as the face of Disney in Hawaii, Apo found himself having to explain his decision to pull up political stakes at a point when the city will have to plan — and pay for — a special election. On balance, Apo said, it was the best decision. The special election could have been rushed to coincide with the general election to save money, but it would have been lost in the "political noise" of gubernatorial, congressional and senatorial races.
"My belief was probably they wouldn’t be able to learn about the candidates because of all that noise," he said. "And so the winner would be more about what name they would recognize, as opposed to anything about the issues."
QUESTION: When did you announce your intent to leave?
ANSWER: I signed Friday (Aug. 27) and announced Tuesday (Sept. 2), and part of that was just putting the pieces together. At one point someone said, "Why not just hold off on the announcement to avoid all this and just announce it in the middle of September. But I just felt that this transition period is something good. … I don’t want to be hiding, reacting. I mean, the other thing is, the rumors were out there. … One, I didn’t want, and Disney didn’t want, to be on the defensive. We didn’t want rumors running around by delaying the announcement. So let’s announce it, let’s be up front about what’s going on. That’s still a question: Are you abandoning your constituents? If I had announced that I’m resigning the next day, you don’t think I would have been hit for that?
Q: Probably that’s because it’s coming so fast on the heels of other special elections, right? It’s a legitimate question.
A: No doubt. We knew that by doing this — me leaving at all, whether it was one day later or six days later — that question was coming. Yeah, it’s a fair question. Just like it’s a fair question about the cost issue.
Q: What is the importance of remaining for the transition?
A: There are some big issues that I’d like to finish off … firecrackers, homeowners classification … of islandwide importance, that had I resigned immediately I would not have had a part of.
Q: Are you talking about the situation in Kalihi and other places where homeowners were hit with a big increase?
A: No. I mean, I think we’ll resolve that, too, and I’d like to. But … we created the homeowners classification: Doing away with that.
Q: Reversing that?
A: Yes. As I’ve also said publicly, the mayor wanted a tool, we gave it to him, we’ve seen how it worked for a year. I don’t think anyone’s standing there saying that it was a good thing. I’ve introduced the bill already and it passed first reading. Hopefully, it will be up for second reading this month.
Q: Some would say that an elected official leaving to take another position is damaging the public trust. What would you say?
A: I’d love to have this discussion, because the other interesting question is: What is that expectation, and what should be that expectation? You’re in a four-year term. Is that there really to create the expectation that you serve your entire term? Or is that there to designate when someone needs to run for re-election, a re-checkup: Is this a person who should be in office? Because what other employment is there where you make a four-year commitment, a six-year commitment, a two-year commitment? … If you want good quality people to run for elective office, if your general position out there is you’ve got to commit to four years of this, you’re going to lose people, the good people … And the good people, hey, if you’re willing to run and serve in here, they’re the kind of people who may get picked up somewhere. You’re telling them, "Hey, you’ve got to foreclose your opportunities to your career, to your advancement, by making this commitment."
Q: About your new job: What’s the timeline on the resort?
A: Scheduled opening is Aug. 29 of next year.
Q: What’s your title?
A: Director of public affairs-Hawaii, including everything from community relations, government relations, spokesperson- type work.
Q: Some lobbying?
A: It’s not so much lobbying, but just making sure people understand what they’re doing. … It’s not like Disney needs any entitlements from the city. It’s making sure the stakeholders know what’s going on and being a good corporate citizen here in Hawaii. Disney realizes they are a new player in Hawaii. They don’t have a theme park like they did in Anaheim before they started doing some of these resort developments. And so having this type of position here that provides a corporate-level person on the ground here, they decided it became important to them. It’s also in the job description, dealing with internal communications, getting the Disney message to the employees that will be brought on board.
Q: How do you see this development changing the community?
A: My personal view is: Its effect on the West Oahu communities is not overly different than how any new resort would affect it. It’s the jobs, it’s that economic development.
The grander effect that will happen because it’s Disney will obviously be felt in the community, but that’s going to really be felt islandwide and statewide. And that is, one, "the magic of Disney" — sorry, throwing out the first Disney saying — and what that attracts, what that brings from a notoriety standpoint for Hawaii. Whether you’re in Japan or China or Hong Kong in Asia, or within the U.S. or in Europe, Disney’s now in Hawaii. And that’s a significant addition to Hawaii’s cachet. … The other is just the breadth of Disney. Whether it’s ESPN and ABC and their publishing and Disney Entertainment, Disney’s record label — having that here now, having this direct connection with a physical asset on the ground, that’s in the long run going to be significant for our island and our state, not only from an economic development standpoint but from an opportunity standpoint. … For us at Ko Olina, when ESPN is out here with the Pro Bowl, we get them to say OK to bringing in kids from (Waianae High School) Seariders to be with them and see how they do things from a production standpoint. … They’ll have a reason to say, "Hey, if we’re looking around the world, let’s go to Hawaii. We’ve got the resort there. If we need a hotel to film in, we’ve got a place to go."
Q: Are there perks in the job? Do you get to ride the rides as much as you want?
A: The problem is when I go to these places now, I’m going to be working.