The resignation of Tulsi Gabbard from the Honolulu City Council provides an opening, albeit a small one, that a key vote on the city's $5.3 billion rail project could be held up.
According to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, a full funding grant agreement for the project may not be approved by the federal government until the end of November. Once approved, the City Council must pass a resolution that would allow the FFGA to be signed by the mayor. The city expects the FFGA to be worth $1.55 billion, which would cover 30 percent of the project's cost.
However, if the FFGA is forwarded to the city before Gabbard's replacement can take her seat on Nov. 26, there is the possibility of a 4 – 4 tie.
"Then we may have to defer the matter until we do have that seat filled," said Council Chairman Ernie Martin. "That seat will be filled 20 days after the general election."
Gabbard, a Democrat who's running for Hawaii's Second Congressional District in the U.S. House, said constituents of Council District 6 must weigh the issue of rail before deciding on her replacement.
"That is absolutely going to be a question for the people and the voters of Council District 6," said Gabbard. "I expect it to be a very crowded race, and a very lively one."
Martin is not overly concerned the FFGA could be held in limbo. He said the current Council has been decidedly pro-rail, with many key votes ending up 7 – 2. In June, Tom Berg and Ann Kobayashi were the only councilmembers who voted against using the city's line of credit for rail transit.
However, there are potential pitfalls that could change how some members of the City Council view rail transit.
Two lawsuits, one before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and another before the Hawaii Supreme Court, could bring construction of the rail project to a halt.
Then there's the candidacy of former two-term Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano, who has vowed to kill the rail project.
If Cayetano wins the mayoral election over pro-rail candidate Kirk Caldwell, the city's former managing director, that could be seen by some on the council as a referendum to kill the project.
"If Gov. Cayetano is successful, I mean we cannot ignore that fact," said Martin. "The outcome of the general election will have some impact in terms of where we're headed in the next few years."
In December 2010, Berg won his Council District 1 seat with 2,326 votes in a field that contained 14 candidates. The special election to fill Gabbard's seat could be just as crowded.
Former Honolulu City Councilman Jon Yoshimura, who served Council District 6 from 1995 to 2002, has said he will run for Gabbard's seat. Yoshimura would not say whether he supports the rail project when contacted by KITV4, but said he would address the issue Friday when he official announces his candidacy.
Others that have expressed interest in serving the remainder of Gabbard's term include State Sen. Carol Fukunaga, former Hawaii GOP chairman Sam Aiona, the city's director of Information Technology Gordon Bruce, and state representatives Karl Rhoads, and John Mizuno.
Martin said Gabbard’s vacancy would be announced during a special hearing of the City Council on Aug. 22. That will make the beginning of the official 10 day filing period for potential candidates.
“I anticipate that we might get up to a dozen candidates to enter this particular race,” said Martin.
Gabbard, the Democratic candidate for Hawaii’s Second Congressional District, decided to step down from the Council immediately to save city taxpayers as much as $150,000, the estimated cost of holding a special election. She insists she’s not overlooking her Republican challenger in the general election, Kawika Crowley, of Hilo.
“Today really is about what is best for my constituents of Council District 6, and making sure that the taxpayers of the City and County of Honolulu don't have any added extra costs for any special election,” said Gabbard.
Gabbard beat former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary 54 percent to 33.6 percent.