Published in Honolulu Weekly July 21, 2004
No news is bad news
By John Pritchett

There was high drama at the Honolulu City Council meeting on Wednesday, July 14, when the council voted to override 10 of Mayor Jeremy Harris’s 11 line-item, budgetary vetoes. In so doing, the council restored funding for the Kaimuki-Kapahulu-Waikiki trolley and for continued 'Olelo broadcast of council meetings. The council’s overrides also reinstated contingency funding for the National Association of Counties conference scheduled for July 2005, and thwarted an attempt by the mayor to divert $100,000 from the city’s Culture and Arts Office to nonprofit events. The council also sustained a budget proviso that would prevent the awarding of a city contract to Island Recycling, a company cited for numerous environmental and other regulatory violations.

Harris earlier warned that a council override of his budget vetoes would be illegal because the fiscal year for the budget had already begun as of July 1. But Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz countered that the City Charter states that the council has 30 days to override any mayoral veto. After the council vote, the mayor reportedly accused the council of being “immature” and “irresponsible” and threatened to take them to court. But at this point, the council’s overrides are sustained and legal, unless Harris, in his last five months in office, can convince a judge otherwise.

While there have been overrides of mayoral vetoes in the past, the council’s Wednesday actions were unprecedented in recent times. And where was the TV news coverage? KGMB Channel 9 and KHNL Channel 8 didn’t cover the council meeting at all. When asked why, KHNL News Director Sue Levine said, “No comment.” KHON Channel 2 News covered the meeting but did not report on the overrides. Only KITV Channel 4 made any mention of the council overrides—15 minutes into the 6 p.m. broadcast, reporter Denby Fawcett said that the City Council overrode several of Harris’s bills and there could be some court battles in the future.

When asked about the sparse coverage of the veto overrides, KITV reporter Mary Zanakis said, “To the average person it’s boring, we want stories that make people feel good, that make them smile.” She went on to say that the station has “pulled back” from city government coverage because there isn’t newscast time to cover everything. The broadcast in question devoted more than 4 minutes to a story about a young boy who had memorized all of TheBus routes, while the council’s veto overrides got a few seconds.

It hasn’t always been like this. In the past, KITV news reporter Keoki Kerr garnered many awards for his excellent coverage of City Hall. According to Zanakis, KITV now has no reporter assigned to cover city government. Veteran TV news reporter Bill Brennen, who was let go from KHON after 13 years of service without reason, said that the shift is a result of mainland news directors and consultants now controlling the local stations. Ask any TV news director, he said, and they will all say that news coverage of local government is boring.

A healthy democracy depends on an informed electorate. Unfortunately, Hawai‘i has one of the country’s worst voter turnout records. The local TV news media has a responsibility to keep citizens informed about what’s going on with our local government, boring or not.

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