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Alethea Rebman is constantly vigilant when it comes to 155-acre Kapiolani Park, on the Diamond Head side of Waikiki.
That’s because Rebman is president of the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society, which seeks to make sure the highly popular and heavily used park is always managed according to the terms of the public charitable trust under which it was created in 1896.
Contending that all activities involving the park must serve a "public park purpose," the society was formed in 1986 after the city attempted to lease park lands for a Burger King restaurant and a construction company storage yard. The dispute led to a 1988 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the society’s position, that the city had no right to lease out lands covered by the trust. Subsequent court actions, such as a court order issued in 1991, have further clarified how the park is supposed to be managed.
Most recently, the group has been concerned about two City Council bills that would allow sponsorships and advertising at the Honolulu Zoo, which is on land covered by the trust. Rebman said the society wants more clarity on the sponsorship proposal, but definitely opposes the advertising measure.
When not devoting her attention to the park as president of the society, which she joined in 2005, Rebman practices family law as a partner in Mitsuyama + Rebman.
A former Honolulu deputy prosecutor, Rebman earned her law degree from Cornell Law School, in Ithaca, N.Y.Before that, she earned a bachelor’s degree in international studiesfrom Hawaii Pacific University, which she attended on a cross-country running scholarship.
She first came to Hawaii in 1986 after graduating from Harbor High School in Santa Cruz, Calif. She decided to stay here, she said, because, like Santa Cruz, Hawaii is very ocean-oriented and "it’s a very welcoming place."
Rebman, 46, is married to civil engineer Mike Beason and lives in Waikiki.
Question: When was the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society formed and for what purpose?
Answer: It was formed in the mid-’80s, … (when) the city had a plan to lease 10,000 square feet of land right outside the zoo to Burger King, and they also wanted to lease land to a contracting company for storage purposes.
So a bunch of citizens were like, “This can’t be right.” They all got together, and … what they did was unearth the fact that Kapiolani Park was under a trust, formed in 1896, a public charitable trust.
So they pursued it with the city and the Attorney General’s Office. The Attorney General’s Office anywhere is always in charge of overseeing public charitable trusts, which makes sense. But in this case, the attorney general declined to pursue it. The city admitted that this was probably not a public park use, but they claimed that an intervening state law, between 1896 and the present time, made it legal for them to do this.
So the citizens took it all the way up to the Hawaii Supreme Court, in a case that was ruled on in 1988, which found that, yes, this trust does apply, and that the city doesn’t have these powers (to lease out the park land). And it had some pretty strong language about the attorney general abandoning the defense of the rights of the beneficiary of the trust.
Q: Who is the beneficiary of the trust?
A: The public. The land belongs to everybody. It doesn’t belong to the city, the state, any one entity. So it’s unusual in that regard.
Q: Who set up the trust?
A: It’s a little bit complicated. There was a Kapiolani Park Association that held some land in fee simple, and it also leased some land from the Republic of Hawaii. William Irwin donated certain land in the area, and the Republic of Hawaii did. … And it was to be used permanently as a free public park … “free and open to the public forever.”
So that’s the guiding principle that a 1988 Hawaii Supreme Court case tells the city and the state, “You have to abide by this.” That’s what protected the park over the years, that and the citizens who have been willing to fight for it.
Q: But the city has to maintain it?
A: They manage it, yes.
Q: Who are the trustees?
A: The City Council, which creates an inherent conflict of interest. The Council members are not very interested in their role as trustees and do not seem to understand the role, which carries the highest level of fiduciary responsibility.
Q: Does the state have a relationship in any of this, besides the attorney general’s responsibility?
A: That’s the only relationship the state has, and as some of their lands abut Kapiolani Park.
Q: What’s your take on the issue that came before the Council recently regarding sponsorships and advertisements at the Honolulu Zoo?
A: The sponsorship bill is a little vague, because there could be problems in the implementation. But if the zoo does get a sponsor and they put up a little 3-by-5 plaque that says, you know, “Sponsored by so and so,” then that would be fine.
If they put up an 11-by-13 sign that says “Sponsored by fill-in-the-blank,” with their advertising taglines following and the little … barcodes that you can scan, that would be a problem.
Q: Well if it’s inside the zoo itself, what would be wrong with that?
A: Well, the zoo is part of the park, and it’s subject to all the park rules. So part of it is the slippery-slope problem. Everything that’s done in the park has to be a “public park purpose,” not just benefit the park. Otherwise … I don’t know if you saw our last newsletter, but the things that people have proposed over the years — a skate park, the convention center, you know, tons of stuff, everybody wants a piece of it. So sometimes we come across as hardline because, in a certain way, what could be the harm? And we all want the zoo to succeed. But if you start allowing advertising there, which is not allowed under the existing court orders as we read them, then you have a problem.
Q: In terms of concession stands, there’s one by Queen’s Beach that sells burgers and drinks and things like that. How does that fit in?
A: Well, there are two different things going on. One is that it is allowed to have a stand that’s there to serve the park users. Everything has to be oriented to serving park users. That is, it shouldn’t be a stand-alone attraction.
On the other hand, that little stand down there, that Queen’s Beach thing, is actually on a piece of land that’s not under the trust. If it were under the trust, it would not be allowed because of the terms that they’ve made with them (the concession operator), which gives them property rights in it. It’s quite complicated.
Q: What about the Waikiki Aquarium?
A: The aquarium is on state land that was never part of the trust. There’s a patchwork down there. The beachfront land at San Souci is definitely under the trust. So is the land right in front of the Waikiki Natatorium.
Q: What about the Natatorium itself — what do you think should be done with it?
A: The Nat is on state land, but of course we have a huge interest in it because of its huge impact on the park. The city has talked about taking that green, grassy area at Kaimana and turning it into a parking lot to serve whatever they want to do with the Natatorium. We are completely opposed to taking that, and we think we have a pretty good case on that.
Q: Other than that, have you suggested what should be done with the Natatorium?
A: We’re not making any suggestions as to what they do with the Natatorium, just that what they do cannot negatively impact the park.
Q: What about the archery range? It’s been like three years or something since they closed it, supposedly temporarily. Do you have an official position on that?
A: We don’t really. If it’s a good neighbor. … What we like about it is that it’s a multi-purpose area. When people are not using it for archery, picnickers can use it, and that should be the point of any sort of use of the park. Nobody gets exclusive use of any part of the park. The main thing would be that nothing further is built and nothing is paved for an archery range. If they want something like that, then they do need to move it. Otherwise, we don’t really take a position.
Q: What about the homeless in the park? Was that ever a focus of your attention?
A: Not as a society. We get a lot of calls about that still. It seems to have improved, but as we all know, the city has its own enforcement and housing problems, so I don’t think that it affects Kapiolani Park exclusively. The main thing is that the park needs to be open to the public. Anything that interferes with that the city should take steps to alleviate.
Q: Do you think that the curfew of kicking people out at night is good?
A: You know, originally we were opposed to closing the park at any hours, because (it’s supposed to be) free and open to the public. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to run through there at 11:30 at night or anything like that. But the city does have the right to manage it and it seemed to be at a crisis point, so we ended up not opposing a closure from, I think, 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. But I don’t know how effective that has been in keeping the park clear.
Q: I remember when installing parking meters along Kalakaua Avenue was a big deal.
A: As long as they only charge a reasonable fee and it’s for park users only.
Q: But the money goes to the city and it doesn’t go to a special fund?
Q: Have you ever asked for that parking money?
A: No, we haven’t. But the first step would really be for Corporation Counsel and the City Council to stop wasting taxpayer money by constantly trying to do things with the trust, and then we could move on. (Laughter)
Q: They keep messing with the trust, eh?
A: Yeah, they spend a lot of Corp. Counsel money trying to push things through. … We have so many challenges keeping the land that’s there open. I think it’s very worth mentioning that under the previous administration, they spent about $100,000 developing plans for a lifeguard administration building on Kapiolani Park land.
Q: By the aquarium?
A: Yes, next to the aquarium, including parking and showers and classrooms, and so on.
Q: Are there any other major issues that are a priority for you?
A: Well, there was the issue of the city Department of Urban Forestry nursery along Paki Avenue. The 1991 court order said it could only be used to service Kapiolani Park, and the city has been using it to service all of East Honolulu. We kind of pursued that. At our annual meeting on April 6, the city speaker said they are going to be moving that out. So it could be that what becomes of that space will be the next issue for Kapiolani Park.
Q: It could host the archery range?
A: It could, but we would have the problem of an exclusive-use area. … But, you know, a lot of people will have ideas like that. Should we move parking over there to free up more green space? What should be done with it that’s consistent with the trust? It could be exciting, if it’s done correctly.
Q: What do you hope for the future of the park?
A: What we would most like to see — which would save the taxpayers money and save the park from being threatened at every turn — would be special rules for Kapiolani Park that reflect the trust. … Even if they don’t make a special management district, which I understand has its problems, just be very clear that these are the rules for Kapiolani Park that apply to this park, because we manage it under a public charitable trust. That would give guidance to the park manager, who works very hard but has these competing interests, and to everybody. …
(Also,) KPPS would like to see a special fund (for the park), because the trust doesn’t allow commercial activities, but it allows what is called special entertainments, and that’s why the Waikiki Shell is allowed there, and the zoo is allowed there because, you know, it’s a public park purpose.
Q: Where would the money come from?
A: The money would come from whatever’s generated by the Waikiki Shell. The zoo would probably be within that, but then the zoo could keep the funds from its parking lot, which it currently doesn’t get to keep, and I imagine the zoo would do a better job of making sure that parking was as ordered by the court order for zoo and park users only.
It could be like any other special management district. Perhaps we don’t suggest a public-private partnership, but there could be funds donated to it, and a lot of things that happen there could be charged commensurate with their impact on the park.
The problem is the city may make money or it may lose money, but as long as all money goes into the general fund, it always has incentive to short the funds for the park.
But it does generate more money than a lot of parks, because it does have the Shell. The zoo is currently underfunded, so they’re not making money, but it’s such a heavily used park.
CORRECTION: Alethea Rebman, president of the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society, said that any concession stand allowed on Kapiolani Park trust land “shouldn’t be a stand-alone attraction.” She was misquoted as saying that it “should be” a stand-alone attraction, in an earlier version of this story and in an intervew on page A16 of Friday’s paper.