Published in Honolulu Weekly June 30, 2003
by John Pritchett
City Managing Director Ben Lee came running into the Council Committee meeting room so out of breath he could hardly speak. It was the July 23 meeting of the Council Budget Committee and Chair Ann Kobayashi had just asked to hear testimony on two resolutions (03-143 and 03-105) designed to limit spending by the city's 19 Vision Teams. As he tried to catch his breath, Lee announced that the city would no longer fund vision team projects. This defused the two resolutions and they were deferred.
Lee said that vision team meetings, which are facilitated by the Harris administration, would also be reduced in frequency from monthly to quarterly and that the focus of the vision teams would be redirected away from bricks and mortar-type projects.
Since the inception of the "visioning program," in 1998, the mayor has allocated $295 million for vision team projects, according to sources at City Hall. The stated goal of the program was to empower the people, but it's also easy see how such generosity from the mayor could curry favor with voters.
The public perception that the mayor was giving millions of dollars to vision teams for community projects served him well. The truth is that no community group or "vision team" was ever "given" any city money for capital improvement projects. Vision teams are only able to suggest or propose projects.
While it is true that many projects proposed by those attending vision team meetings (including members of the administration and contractors) were funded and built, it was the mayor who ultimately made the decision. But, if anyone ever questioned if an $800,000 community sign project was really a city priority, Harris could easily claim that is was a vision team project and therefore it was what the community wanted.
In addition to allowing the mayor to virtually buy votes with city money, the visioning program also provided lucrative city contracts to designers, engineers, consultants and contractors. Some of these companies are now the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation into illegal campaign contributions to Jeremy Harris, according to sources at City Hall.
Since Harris is no longer a candidate for higher office, he doesn't need the visioning program or the vision teams anymore.