Editorial | Name in the News Shawn Hamamoto: The Neighborhood Commission’s executive secretary promotes grassroots democracy By Vicki Viotti April 26, 2019 Mahalo for supporting Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Enjoy this free story! CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM Shawn Hamamoto is executive secretary of the city Neighborhood Commission. Shawn Hamamoto is executive secretary of the city Neighborhood Commission. Read more Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser! You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription. Subscribe Now Read this story for free: Watch an ad or complete a survey Log In Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story. Activate Digital Account Print subscriber but without online access? Activate your Digital Account now. Shawn Hamamoto attended his first neighborhood board meeting in 1999, in the urban center — Nuuanu or Downtown, he can’t quite remember which. And, he said, he “fell in love with it.” That’s a reaction which, while uncommon, shows his affinity for this kind of grassroots democracy — which gets into full-swing today with the start of another election cycle. And it may explain why, since 2015, he has been executive secretary of the boards’ overseeing Neighborhood Commission. “I remember, at my first meeting, just being so amazed that in one place you’d have your elected officials, representatives from HPD (Honolulu Police Department), Board of Water Supply, fire department, all in one row that you could talk to,” Hamamoto said. “So the first thought in my mind was, ‘This is just fantastic.’ “The second thought in my mind was, ‘Why are there not more people here?’” Hamamoto, 47, was born in California but raised in Hawaii. He is a Punahou School graduate and attended Oregon State University and the University of Hawaii before finishing his bachelor’s in psychology at Hawaii Pacific University. For the current election, 553 candidates have filed to run for 435 seats on Oahu’s 33 neighborhood boards. In the 19 at-large districts where there are vacancies, 11 are contested races; of the 113 subdistricts with seats open, 49 are contested. That is still quite a lot of community engagement, Hamamoto said, noting that these are all volunteer positions with a significant time commitment. Married with a 9-year-old son, he does grapple with time constraints, too, and served a term himself on the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board No. 13 in 2011. Voting is largely online, though paper ballots are available by request. Those living in districts with contested races will receive a mailing with a bar-code to be used in voting, which begins today and runs through May 17 (for information, call 768-3710 or visit www.honolulu.gov/nco/nbelections.html). Question: Some people have said neighborhood boards are less relevant now, with social media and other means of communication. How do you answer them? Answer: Neighborhood boards are now more relevant than ever, especially with so many issues — monster homes, homeless, infrastructure projects, etc. — affecting the day-to-day lives of our communities. It is a unique system, which allows for face-to-face, transparent discussion between the community and its elected officials and government agencies. Social media is a great tool that can greatly enhance the neighborhood system. … I would have to say that NCO (Neighborhood Commission Office) as an entity was rather late in coming on board into the digital world. … My predecessor … actually started on social media when I came. But at that time, what social media was primarily being used for, our Facebook, was mostly just reposting board agendas — which was helpful. I wanted to go a step further. … Last year we had a conference of chairs, and we actually had a section in that conference talking about our board use of social media, to get basic guidelines and actually encourage them to use social media as another way to network with their neighbors and community. So, on their own, we have some boards with their own Facebook page that they monitor and we’ve also been made aware of this new application called Next Door … because it’s come to our attention that a lot of our communities are using that as well. … Q: There is now the online ballot system. Has that increased voter participation? Any other strategy to improve that? A: The Neighborhood Board system started online elections in 2009, primarily as a means to utilize technology to significantly reduce costs (paper, postage, etc.). Back then, voter participation actually decreased, ostensibly due to the fact that it was a new system that people weren’t used to. … Prior to them voting online, they had about 40,000 voters, which is a lot. … It dropped to 10,000. That’s huge. … However, since its inception, online voting has increased steadily over the years. The 2017 election had the highest number of voters (20,745) in neighborhood board online voting history. We believe that as technology becomes more prevalent and available, voter participation will increase organically. … So the good news is that we’re making progress but we still have a ways to go. I really believe we will achieve that. So I’m really looking forward to this year’s election to see if we can continue that trend of increasing numbers. Q: How can the commission address the problem of many vacant seats on the board? What is the recruitment process like? A: Vacancies are usually filled by volunteers from the community, with board approval. Vacancies are posted on all board meeting agendas, where applicable. Moving forward, the NCO will partner with various boards to help fill vacancies by using social media and community outreach strategies. … One is to use traditional media such as the newspaper. I’ve done pretty much all the major morning shows … In addition, we do our social media. In addition we do the old-fashioned boots on the ground (holds up a neighborhood board poster): We made these posters and we’ve been going out to businesses all over the island, asking them if they would support their community and just advertise this for us. … Q: Are there any changes in the overall system being planned? Do you think the number of boards on Oahu is still about right? A: The Neighborhood Commission has a Neighborhood Plan Committee, which annually reviews the Neighborhood Plan based on community input. The commission is aware of the changing and growing populations on our island, and will be considering adjustments to boards’ boundaries and compositions once they are able to analyze the census data and hear from the community. Q: What is the annual budget for the system and staffing? A: For fiscal year 2020, the NCO proposed just under $800,000 for City Council approval. These funds are to be used for the staff salaries, as well as office operations, facility rentals, training and other costs. … Q: What function or purpose that boards provide would you say is the most critical? A: According to the City Charter, the Neighborhood Board system was created to increase effective community participation in helping government make decisions. That said, the boards provide an excellent platform for the sharing of information and public discussion as to make people aware of what’s going on in their communities. An informed community is better equipped to participate in our democratic process, and ultimately lead to effective and meaningful change. Q: Has anyone proposed eliminating the board system? A: In 2016 the Charter Commission convened as they do once every 10 years and one of the recommendations that came out was the elimination of the neighborhood board system. … It was proposed by a subcommittee, but when it actually went to the full commission for a vote, it failed. … Former Gov. John Waihee was the hero of the day, because he was on the Charter Commission. … He told us the story of how early in his career he worked for Mayor (Frank) Fasi, and one of his assignments as a planner was to help create the Neighborhood Board system in the early ’70s. And he went on to talk about the intent in creating it. The intent was to increase public participation in the decisions of government at a grassroots level. … Q: What abilities would you consider the most essential for someone considering running for a board seat? A: The most essential quality for a prospective board member is to care about the community and be willing to step forward and serve. The Neighborhood Board system is very inclusive, so we encourage everyone to get involved. The only requirements for candidates is that they be at least 18 years old and a resident of the area. It is a two-year, voluntary commitment, which can be a very rewarding experience that can lead to positive improvements to our community. Previous Story Column: Open primary election in January would be good for Hawaii Next Story Column: He maʻi lele ka maʻi ʻula, e akahele!