The Honolulu Salary Commission held a controversial meeting Thursday without oral testimony and voted unanimously to recommend no salary raises for elected and appointed city officials.
In light of the economic crisis facing the city and the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with many furloughed or laid off, several elected officials and citizens objected to the nearly across-the-board 3% pay raises, with many of the listed officials already making well over $100,000.
Some called it unethical.
Sharlene Chun-Lum, a retired Halawa resident, said in her written testimony, “It seems almost criminal to offer a 3% raise when so many taxpayers may be facing a 20% cut to their salaries or being laid off.”
She spoke out in April 2019 at Salary Commission hearings against a 3.5% salary increase, which she called fiscally irresponsible then. She said these public servants, especially those making more than $120,000 a year, got raises last year and are already being fairly compensated.
Common Cause Hawaii objected to having the meeting without oral testimony and without broadcasting it to the public, according to Commissioner Diane Peters-Nguyen.
Salary Commission Chairman Kevin Sakamoto held the hearing at Honolulu Hale in the Council Chamber, with the handful in attendance wearing masks.
The public was allowed to attend, but no one was allowed to provide oral testimony.
He read brief, one-line summaries of all the written testimony submitted before noon Thursday and said any further testimony would be kept as part of the record.
Peters-Nguyen brought to Sakamoto’s attention Common Cause Hawaii’s testimony because she did not recognize its testimony in his reading of the short summaries.
Choon James, who is running for mayor and opposes the pay increases, said she emailed her testimony Wednesday, but it was not read by Sakamoto. She was allowed to briefly share her views, saying she hoped the commission would do the right thing, and noted the decision to raise salaries was done before the COVID-19 situation.
The commission was to vote on the Permitted Interaction Group’s proposed salaries and salary schedules, which would have gone into effect July 1.
They were presented at a Feb. 28 meeting of the commission and published for public hearing April 3.
Sakamoto said he held the hearing during the pandemic because the committee had the room reserved and the commission had to meet a May 1 deadline.
Only three commissioners attended in person. The others attended remotely, but the audio was not clear at times.
Commissioner Malia Espinda said she supported the zero salary increase, but wanted to do something for the police chief and her deputy, who had a tough year. The chief has an annual salary of $205,800, and the proposal was to raise it to $211,968. Deputy chiefs make $196,296.
That’s more than the $186,432 the mayor makes now or would have gotten with a 3% raise.
Hawaii News Now reported the commission received written testimony supporting the raises, which outraged the public.
Ultimately, the City Council would decide and have to vote on the recommendations of the commission.
Several Council members, who earn $68,904, and the Council chairman, who makes $76,968, rejected the idea of pay raises.
The mayor wrote in his own testimony that raises can be reevaluated once the pandemic is over, but that now is not the time.