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Honolulu officials debate splitting up lifeguard, ambulance service

Legislators are at odds on amendment that removes ocean safety from EMS


Photo/Honolulu Emergency Medical Services

By Ian Bauer
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — That divide centered on Council member Andria Tupola’s Resolution 50 which urges, via a voter-approved charter amendment, that Honolulu’s lifeguard and ambulance services be broken up to create that new department.

The city’s plan to float a new Department of Ocean Safety hit choppy seas inside Honolulu Hale Tuesday morning.

During the City Council’s Committee on Budget meeting, the proposal to establish, staff, fund and perhaps have public oversight over a larger city lifeguard department caused division between Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration and a few Council members.

That divide centered on Council member Andria Tupola’s Resolution 50 which urges, via a voter-approved charter amendment, that Honolulu’s lifeguard and ambulance services be broken up in order to create that new department.

Tupola’s resolution 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 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 .”

Tupola noted that in 2021 former Council member Heidi Tsuneyoshi introduced a similar resolution to put the question of making Ocean Safety its own department on the ballot, but that resolution failed.

At his March 14 State of the City Address, the mayor—based on recommendations by the city’s Ocean Safety Task Force, which he and his administration set up in 2023—said he intends to create a stand-alone department, claiming it would improve work done by the Honolulu’s world-renowned lifeguards.

“I know that there is currently a resolution before the City Council, and my office will work with Ocean Safety and members of the City Council to get this done, " Blangiardi said during the address.

However, city Deputy Managing Director Krishna Jayaram told the budget panel Tuesday that the mayor’s desire to create the new sector could be done more quickly through executive action, granted under the City Charter.

“This past month, when the mayor gave the State of the City Address, he expressed his unwavering commitment to the creation of an independent Ocean Safety department, " said Jayaram. “In his comments he also shared his commitment to Council on how to do this most expeditiously.”

He added that “out of respect for the Council’s process, " the city hasn’t introduced its own resolution to create the Ocean Safety department “under the mayor’s authority that goes to Council.”

“Right now, (Tupola’s resolution ) contemplates both the creation of a standalone department as well as a commission, " Jayaram said. “The mayor does have the authority under the Charter to introduce a resolution that would create the department right now, with Council’s approval.”

He added, “our proposal is that we do so and then allow the commission question to go to the voters in November.”

“This is so that we can move forward quickly with the creation of a separate, independent Ocean Safety department and that will also allow us to start the planning process for the fiscal year (2026 ) budget " for the new department, he said. “And should the voters approve the commission in November then we could work that into the Charter and into the process.”

But some Council members objected to executive action on the matter.

Vice Chair Esther Kia ‘aina said, “Council member Tsuneyoshi and now, Council member Tupola, has been leading the charge on this.

“And I think we’re all swimming in the same direction but we’re at the critical juncture in the current where we’re trying to figure out what moves forward, " she said.

Still, she asked city officials, “When do you anticipate your resolution to be transmitted requesting approval for the mayor’s authority to establish the commission, when will that be completed ?”

Jayaram said the city had not submitted anything “as this resolution is before you right now, " but confirmed the city wanted Tupola’s resolution amended to only see the commission portion proceed to voters.

“We’re saying that we can offer a resolution for the Council’s consideration to create that Ocean Safety department much quicker than this process and with much more certainty, " he added.

Kia ‘aina asked, “If that were to occur—that this be modified for the commission—when are you going to be able to complete the draft resolution establishing the department ?”

“We’ll get that in as soon as we know this has been amended, " Jayaram replied.

Although grateful for the mayor’s support, Tupola opposed changes to Resolution 50. “And the reason why is because I do believe that the most important thing for us to do is to stand up this department with community voices, " she said, “with commissioners that are watermen and waterwomen that can help us to start this right.”

Meanwhile, Tupola mentioned the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s The Big Q online poll conducted March 6, which asked participants whether they favored a new, separate city Department of Ocean Safety.

In response, 341 voted in favor of the question “No; would add bureaucracy, costs "; 110 voted for “Yes; break from existing Emergency Services Department "; and 53 votes were garnered for “Undecided; need to know more.”

“Of course, people are going to say labor costs, " Tupola said of the overwhelming “no " votes, but added she believed the poll “was not an accurate representation of what the public would say.”

“The only people that I have ever heard say that the public is going to reject this at the ballot is the administration, and I don’t know why, " she said.

For his part, Council member Calvin Say said although he supported Tupola’s resolution, he’d be voting with “strong reservations " due, in part, to the creation of the commission—one that could be much like the city Police Commission which, among other things, appoints HPD police chiefs.

“I personally believe I’m delegating my authority in the appointment of a deputy director and a director for a department, " Say said, adding, “It’s the commissioners that will be making the appointment.”

Still, he noted, “I’ve been hearing for the past three years that a lot of the commissioners will be tied to water sports or water activities.”

“I thought we were here for a cross-section of people to be part of the commission, " Say told city officials. “Not just your focus on water sports or water activities, that’s the concern I have with this ‘strong reservation.’ I’m in support of putting it to the vote, I’m not afraid of that, but if the commission is set up, please don’t testify that they will be commissioners who only have water experiences or water-education knowledge.”

Moreover, Say continued, he hoped a newly founded Ocean Safety department doesn’t come before the Council in fiscal year 2026 with a “budget request of $1.5 (million ) to $2 million for the administrative costs.”

According to the city, the estimated cost to set up and run a new Ocean Safety sector will be about $1.4 million a year.

“Have we thought it through ?” asked Say. “It’s easy to just say ‘yes, yes’ but in the end, I worry about whether we can find the finances for it also.”

In addition, Say noted the mayor’s other State of the City announcement—to merge the city’s Office of Housing with the Department of Land Management to form the Department of Housing and Land Management.

“Boy, you guys are creating two new departments, " said Say, adding, “Have we reviewed it? All I’m saying is, ‘go slow.’”

Ultimately, the budget committee recommended the full Council hold a third-reading vote on Resolution 50. The next full Council meeting will be held April 17.

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