Kobayashi Reflects On Her Career

City Council Budget Committee chairwoman Ann Kobayashi celebrated her 76th birthday in April. She’s spent more than 23 years in elective office, 13 in the state Senate and 10 on the City Council. Factor in staff work in the state Legislature and for Gov. Ben Cayetano, and Kobayashi’s career in government runs to more than 30 years. But it may be coming to a close.

“I’m thinking about retirement in two years,” says Kobayashi. “I want to have my cup of coffee and newspaper in the morning, and if there’s something alarming happening in the town I can shake my head and mumble, ‘That’s too bad,’ instead of getting mad, calling a meeting, feeling I have to do something.”

Few would begrudge Kobayashi her rest. She’s won a reputation for watching government’s bottom line in both the state Senate and on the City Council. Council Chairman Ernie Martin has described Kobayashi as wielding “a very, very sharp knife.”

Kobayashi sees waste everywhere: in the $300 million for a proposed new boiler for H-Power; in the $1,200 per month the H-Power contractor demanded for use of restroom facilities for city garbage truck drivers; in the $100 the city paid for garbage cans that private contractors purchased for $40 … the budget chairwoman’s list goes on and on and on.

“I don’t want to go into the city departments’ business,” says Kobayashi, “but there’s so much waste. It upsets me. I try every year to go through the city budget line by line. I feel more responsible to the taxpayers than to anyone or anything else.”

Kobayashi feels new mayors have to learn how to budget as well. She ran unsuccessfully for mayor twice, in 1994 and 2008, and she’s watched four mayors up-close as a member of the council. Some mayors, she’s convinced, learn budgeting faster than others.

“Jeremy Harris was too focused on running for governor,” says Kobayashi. “He didn’t raise taxes for 10 years and he raided the sewer fund to pay for other things. Now we’re paying higher sewer fees to replenish it.”

She dismisses the parks Harris built. “He liked trees and tiled streets in Chinatown and plants in hanging baskets in Waikiki. It’s nice to be a beautiful city, if you are a rich city.”

Kobayashi made television advertisements in support of Mufi Hannemann’s campaign for mayor. “Mufi didn’t do parks and he got stuck with raising the sewer fees. If it hadn’t been for his support of rail, I would have continued to support him. But there wasn’t enough transparency in its development. We continually asked for the numbers, but we never got them.”

Peter Carlisle gets high marks. “Carlisle is a good person, and he was very fiscally conservative. But, cutting bus routes probably hurt him.”

Kobayashi herself entered politics as a Republican. She worked for Manoa Republicans Eureka Forbes and Wadsworth Yee in the state Legislature. Family real estate and asset-management companies also made her aware of the tax burdens borne by small businesses. She first won election to the Legislature as a Republican, and it was the party’s stance on gender issues that persuaded her to switch her allegiance to the Democrats.

So what will a budget-cutter do in retirement?

“Oh, probably bake bread and volunteer for nonprofits.”

Baked bread does not require such a sharp knife.