City Council considers new Ocean Safety Department

Mar. 6—As if paddling into stormy seas, creating a new Honolulu Department of Ocean Safety could be a daunting venture.

As if paddling into stormy seas, creating a new Honolulu Department of Ocean Safety could be a daunting venture.

During the City Council's Committee on Budget meeting Tuesday, the way forward—to stand up, staff, fund and perhaps have public oversight over a larger sector—caused uncertainty among Mayor Rick Blangiardi's administration as well as the Council.

Yet, both sides have approaches to the issue, including via a voter-approved charter amendment.

To that end, Council member Andria Tupola introduced Resolution 50, which urges that Honolulu's lifeguard and ambulance services be broken up in order to create that new department.

But city Managing Director Mike Formby told the budget panel the mayor's previously stated plan to reorganize the city Emergency Services Department could simply be done through executive action, granted under the City Charter.

"And that would come to Council, " he told the committee, adding that such a proposal "shall take effect upon approval of the Council or 60 days after transmittal to the Council, unless rejected by two-thirds vote of the Council's entire membership."

Still, Formby said the results of the city's Ocean Safety Task Force—formed by the mayor in 2023 to review and study the feasibility of having Ocean Safety as a stand-alone first-responder department—were pending.

The group, composed of about a dozen current and former ocean safety division lifeguards, various city officials and community members, met 11 times between July and January.

"And that task force meets the final time, I believe, this Friday, March 8, " he said. "And the mayor and I are both appearing before the task force to receive recommendations from the task force."

He added that the city has "seen over three years disadvantages of Ocean Safety as a first responder, being a division within a department."

"It's a long-standing challenge that they have as a division versus a department, when it comes to budgeting, when it comes to prioritization of issues and personnel, " he said.

But since the mayor's March 2023 declaration to see such a department formed, Tupola's Resolution 50 requests language be placed on the Nov. 5 general election ballot, offering this question to voters : "Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to establish a Department of Ocean Safety and remove ocean safety responsibilities from the Department of Emergency Services ?"

If approved, civil service officers and employees holding permanent appointments at Ocean Safety, as of Dec. 31, 2024, "shall continue with the Department of Ocean Safety from Jan. 1, 2025, " and "shall suffer no loss of vacation allowance, sick leave, service credits, retirement benefits, or other rights and privileges because of the charter amendments to this resolution."

Resolution 50 further reads that the head of Ocean Safety on Dec. 31, 2024, "shall serve as the chief of the Department of Ocean Safety from Jan. 1, 2025."

If adopted, the resolution also calls for a "board, creating accountability and oversight similar to that provided by the city's Fire Commission and Police Commission over the city's other public safety departments, the Honolulu Fire Department and Honolulu Police Department."

According to Formby, the mayor "does not have the power under (the ) charter to create a commission."

"So if it goes to the voters, you can stand it up as a separate department with a commission, " he said. "If it goes to the mayor, it would be a separate department, like most departments, without a commission."

But Formby noted challenges to the Blangiardi's administration if the Council were to "go with a voter referendum on a charter amendment."

"(If ) the voters say 'no, ' then for us to come back as an administration and propose (the new department ) would be going against the wishes of the voters, " he said.

Meantime, Council members had their own opinions.

In support of Ocean Safety having a new department, Council Chair Tommy Waters still asked, "If the task force recommends the same, is the mayor and the administration willing to create a separate department without putting this to the voters ?"

Formby replied, "We are willing—if the task force makes a recommendation, we are going to take their recommendations very seriously, and we would be willing to do that through the charter."

"(So ) if we don't put it to voters, is the administration willing to support it on its own with the Council's approval ?" Waters asked again.

To that, Formby said he wanted to read the task force executive summary before answering officially. "But I can tell you personally, my conviction is yes, because I've seen the disadvantages of Ocean Safety not having its own department."

In contrast, Council member Calvin Say noted that about four years ago the city administration approached the Council "requesting a new department, a Department of Housing, " which never materialized.

"It's not that easy to create a department, " Say said, adding, "We should have asked OCS to do a study in the creation " of a new department. "Just with one task force recommendation, we've got to make a hard decision."

Currently, the city says, the ocean safety division comprises 242 employees, including 36 contract positions. In fiscal year 2024, which began July 1, the division's approved budget was over $23.01 million, of which more than $20.7 million is dedicated to salaries, the city says.

At the meeting, Tupola asked John Titchen, ocean safety division chief, what sort of annual budget a new department might need.

"I think it would be good if I did not speak specifically to the findings that the task force will present this week to the mayor and managing director, " Titchen replied, adding, "By my estimation we should move slowly on the formation of a new department."

But as far as staffing was concerned, he asserted, "We're looking at nine to 10 administrative positions that would support a new department, which is really on the order of $1 million or a little more than $1 million in salaries."

Titchen said that he favored a commission having oversight of the new Ocean Safety Department. "It gives the community ample opportunity to prioritize what this service should look like, " he added.

Others, like current city and county lifeguard Joey Cadiz, supported Resolution 50.

"Ocean safety has been kind of swept under the rug in different departments, " Cadiz told the panel, noting it was previously under city Parks and Recreation before moving to Emergency Serv ­ices. "And I think it's critical that we're supported in an autonomous manner. We're a growing agency that probably has the most public contacts in comparison to any other first-responder department."

Former city and county lifeguard Bryan Phillips also supported the resolution, a topic that he said had been floated inside City Hall in prior years.

"There's been ample time to study this, " Phillips said, noting he currently sits on the mayor's task force.

"And I'm confident that we will present an unbiased opinion on whether or not we should create a Department of Ocean Safety to this administration."

Meanwhile, although she did not appear at the meeting, Oahu resident Natalie Iwasa submitted prior written testimony asserting that the creation of a new city department would be too costly for taxpayers.

"A new department, along with a related commission and staff, will add to the cost of government and thereby add pressure to the budget, " she wrote in part. "Please vote 'no' on this proposed charter amendment and instead work toward making government more efficient and less costly."

Ultimately, the Budget Committee recommended Resolution 50 receive a second reading by the full Council.