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Drawing of Honolulu Hale tower

This Is Your City and County of Honolulu Government


No one knows for certain when Honolulu was founded. Hawaiian oral histories and modern archeology indicate a settlement in Honolulu about 1100 A.D., but it may have been settled earlier as the first Polynesian migrants arrived nearly 2,000 years ago.

King Kamehameha I, who conquered Oahu in a decisive battle fought the length of Nuuanu Valley, moved his court from Hawaii Island to Waikiki in 1804. He relocated to what is now downtown Honolulu five years later. The royal housing complex site is under the Marin building built next to Nimitz Highway at Queen and Bethel streets. The monarchs also maintained official residences in Kailua on Hawaii and Lahaina on Maui.

When Honolulu (meaning sheltered harbor) was named is unclear. The old name for Honolulu is said to be Kou, a district roughly encompassing the area from Nuuanu Avenue to Alakea Street and from Hotel Street to Queen Street (then the edge of the waterfront) which is the heart of the present downtown district.

Honolulu Harbor, known also as Kulolia, was entered by the first foreigner, Captain William Brown of the English ship Butterworth, in 1794. He named the harbor Fair Haven. Other foreign captains then referred to it as Brown's Harbor. The name Honolulu (with numerous variations in spelling) soon came into use. In the 1800s, the City of Honolulu was the area near the harbor which is now referred to as downtown Honolulu.

Honolulu became the most important shipping point in Hawaii. It flourished with the sandalwood export and then as a supply port for whalers. Sugar, pineapples, light manufacturing, tourism and defense installations followed as economic mainstays and the last two remain so to this day.

Seamen, colonizers, adventurers, merchants and missionaries from America and Europe westernized the Hawaiian Islands. Probably the greatest influence was by the group of missionaries who arrived from New England in 1820. They left a lasting imprint in fields of religion, education, economics and politics. Later, immigrants from Asia brought other cultural values and practices that helped to fashion the unique Hawaiian culture of today.

In 1850, Kamehameha III proclaimed Honolulu the capital city of his kingdom. It is still the capital and dominant city of the nation's 50th State.

View of Downtown Honolulu area taken from the top of the Frank F. Fasi Municipal Building.


Shortly after the conquest of Oahu, the high chief of Kauai surrendered sovereignty to King Kamehameha I and all the islands were united as one government. During the monarchy, local affairs were administered through the Privy Council, the Minister of the Interior and the governors appointed by the king for each island. Even for a period after U.S. annexation of the islands in 1898 and the creation of the Territory of Hawaii by the Congress in 1900, there was no municipal government.

In 1905, the Territorial Legislature passed the law which formed the basis of modern government in Hawaii. It established five counties: Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Hawaii and Kalawao. Kalawao was the Hansen's Disease settlement on Molokai's Kalaupapa peninsula under the jurisdiction of the state's Health Department. The four other counties were governed by elected Boards of Supervisors.

The state government retained many traditional county government functions and over the next several decades took on even more, giving Hawaii the most centralized state government. The state administers the entire court system, the public health, welfare, correctional and school systems in addition to all harbors, airports and major highways.

The County of Oahu began operating on July 1, 1905, and two years later was renamed the City and County of Honolulu. A mayor was added to the Board of Supervisors. The legislature granted home rule in 1959 and a city charter was adopted, giving Honolulu a mayor-council type of government in which there is a separation between legislative and executive functions. The nine council members are elected by districts. Under the charter, the council has legislative and investigative power. The mayor is the chief executive officer assisted by the managing director who is the second ranking executive and is appointed by the mayor with council approval.

The City and County of Honolulu under the city charter adopted in 1959 was cited by the United States Conference of Mayors as a model for modern American metropolitan area government. It does not have to adjust its programs to the complications of independent suburban municipalities, autonomous districts, commissions, school districts and inconveniently located boundaries of other, smaller governmental jurisdictions. All elective positions have four-year terms elected on a nonpartisan basis. In 1998, Mayor Harris made major changes in the organization of the government. Services were consolidated, operations and processes streamlined and emphasis was placed on customer service.

Several services are contracted out to businesses or private nonprofit organizations, including the operation and maintenance of the bus system, the refuse incinerator/power generating plant, refuse landfill and convenience centers, and animal control services.


The purposes of the City and County government as stated in the charter are to serve and advance the general welfare, health, happiness, safety and aspirations of its residents, present and future, and to encourage their full participation in the process of governance. For achieving these purposes, its departments and agencies can be roughly divided into four groups:

1) Public Safety and Welfare:

Design and Construction Department, Emergency Services Department, Environmental Services Department, Facility Maintenance Department, Fire Department, Medical Examiner Department, Oahu Civil Defense Agency, Planning & Permitting Department, Police Department, Prosecuting Attorney Department, Transportation Services Department, and Water Supply Board.

2) Culture and Recreation:

Enterprise Services Department, Parks & Recreation Department, Mayor's Culture & the Arts Office, and the Royal Hawaiian Band.

3) Community and Human Development, and Citizen Participation:

City Council, Community Services Department, Neighborhood Commission Office. To encourage citizen involvement in Honolulu's government policies and operations, the Neighborhood Commission and neighborhood boards were formed. The board members are elected by the residents of their area and serve as volunteers to advise the government on issues of concern. 

4) General Government Operations:

Budget & Fiscal Services Department, City Clerk, Corporation Counsel Department, Council Services Office, Customer Services Department, Human Resources Department, Managing Director's Office, Mayor's Office, and Technology & Information Department.


Total Island Area: 600 sq. miles (1560 sq. km)
Form of government : Mayor-Council
Date of incorporation as City and County of Honolulu : April 30, 1907
Population (2004 estimate): 899,593
Number of City Employees: approximately 8,000 (including semiautonomous water department and contract employees and excluding TheBus employees.)
Streets and Roads in miles: 1,933
Number of City Buses: 525
Park Acreage: 6,108
2004-2005 Budget: $1.23 billion
Meaning of name : Literally means "protected bay"
Nickname : The Gathering Place
Official flower : Ilima
Official street tree : Rainbow Shower

The county also includes hundreds of islets and reefs extending 2,000 miles from just beyond Niihau to Kure Atoll, but excluding Midway Island. None of these islands have a permanent resident population.

Honolulu is located at approximately 158 degrees longitude west and 21.5 degrees latitude north, approximately 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) from North America. This places it in the subtropics and gives it a mild climate that varies between 65 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit (15 - 32 Celsius).


This landmark structure reflects the California-Spanish architectural design popular in the islands during the 1920's and is the centerpiece of a City Hall complex of other historic buildings and wide open tree studded grounds. Honolulu Hale was built in 1928 by Dickey, Wood, Miller, Rothwell, Kangeter & Lester. Interior details include frescos by Einar Peterson and cast stone by Mario Valdastri. The addition of two new three-story wings completed in 1951. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it houses the offices of the Mayor, the City Council and several City departments. The gracious courtyard is often the scene of concerts, art exhibitions and other public events.
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, April 26, 2011