Three eyeing possible bids to take back council seats

Former Maui County Council Members Danny Mateo, Mike Molina and Joe Pontanilla are considering campaigns next year to reclaim council seats they relinquished because of term limits.

Now, all three work as executive assistants to Mayor Alan Arakawa. If they run and win back their seats, they would get pay raises and join Council Member Don Couch (if he wins re-election) as former Arakawa executive assistants serving as council members.

And, if they decide to re-enter their respective council races, the veteran councilors would pose significant challenges to the re-election prospects of Council Member Mike White of Makawao-Haiku-Paia, now midway through his second term, and freshmen Council Members Stacy Crivello of Molokai and Don Guzman of Kahului.

This week, Mateo and Molina said that they were more likely than not to run for their old residency seats – the Molokai seat for Mateo and the Makawao-Haiku-Paia seat for Molina.

Pontanilla, who held the Kahului residency seat for 10 years, was more circumspect about his political future in a written statement released Thursday.

“I really wanted to hold off making any sort of announcement because I still need to talk to my family and all of my supporters about any decision that I make,” Pontanilla said. “Many people in the community have approached me to run again, and it is definitely something that I have thought about in the last couple of months.

“I have enjoyed my time here in the Mayor’s Office, especially coordinating Tropic Care Maui efforts (the free health care clinics offered in June), so this is not an easy decision to make. I will make a public announcement at a later date should I decide to again run for public office.”

The candidate filing deadline is June 3.

Mateo, the former council chairman, said that if it were not for term limits he probably would have remained on the County Council. Now, returning to the Molokai residency seat is “an option,” he said. “It’s something I’m being encouraged to look at.”

Mateo said he’d make a decision whether to run before the end of this year.

When asked to quantify the likelihood that he would seek his former seat, he said it would be 60-40 – that is a 60 percent chance that he would run again.

Mateo said that to launch his bid for office he would need to revive his campaign organization, something that has not happened yet.

Molina said he was a little more than halfway committed to running for his old seat. He also has been encouraged to run by constituents, supporters and others, but he has not made a decision, he said.

“They appreciated the work I did the prior 10 years,” said Molina, who served on the council from 2001 to 2010. (Mateo and Pontanilla were council members from 2003 to 2012.)

Molina said he has not had time to think about his political future because he’s been busy working in the Mayor’s Office as the mayor’s liaison to county boards and commissions, and he’s been tied up recently as co-chairman of the Maui High Centennial events, which began Thursday and run through Sunday.

“I have not had time to talk it over with my family in depth,” he said, adding that it has been “very flattering” for people to ask him to run. The “common thread” of those urging him to run has been that “they just want choices,” he said.

By mid-October, Molina should have reached a final decision on whether to seek his former council seat, he said.

“I certainly would be willing, if the public’s willing, to serve in an elected capacity again,” he said.

Molina had been mentioned as a possible future candidate for mayor when he left office in 2010, but he said he has no plans to run for mayor.

If he does undertake the campaign for his old seat, Molina would face White, the council’s Budget and Finance Committee chairman. White has said he intends to seek re-election.

White has been a critic of the Arakawa administration, seeking a council investigation of the potential misuse of county funds appropriated for the rehabilitation of the Old Wailuku Post Office. (The post office was demolished and replaced with a parking lot.)

“I believe in the democratic process, and anyone who wishes to run for office should,” White said in an email commenting on Molina’s potential candidacy. “With the fiscal challenges facing Maui County, I feel I am the best choice to hold the Makawao-Haiku-Paia council seat and represent the residents of our county.

“I am spending my time working on critical issues on behalf of the people of Maui County and not focusing on campaigning,” he said. “We have many important issues that need attention such as affordable housing, getting a handle on our unfunded liabilities and balancing our budget without automatically raising taxes.

“I am proud of my record as a council member and acknowledge that I am known for asking tough questions of the administration. I believe, however, that checks and balances in government are critical for a healthy and vibrant community,” White said.

Molina maintained that he, Mateo and Pontanilla would return to their roles as independent watchdogs on the county’s executive branch.

“We’ve showed we can be independent,” Molina said. “We can agree to disagree.”

He said that he disagreed at times with Arakawa during the mayor’s first term in office from 2003 to 2006.

“I don’t believe that would change,” Molina said, adding that with contentious issues he’d look for compromises.

Couch was an executive assistant to Arakawa from 2003 to 2005 and deputy director of the Department of Planning in 2006. Now in his second term, Couch said he thinks his history with the mayor does not hinder his independence as a council member.

“I think I’m a little harsher on the mayor than somebody else would be,” he said. “I typically call him on stuff (when) I don’t think he’s doing it in the betterment of the county.”

Couch said Arakawa administration officials need to convince him of a course of action, and if he disagrees he doesn’t hold back.

“I tell them,” he said. “I don’t sugarcoat it.”

In an email, Crivello said that members of the Arakawa administration can run for office just like any other resident. “That is their prerogative,” she said. “The rumors about the mayor’s staff running for their old seats have been swirling around for the past few months.”

She said she has been humbled to serve as Molokai’s elected council member.

Crivello said she and other current council members “have worked diligently to find the ways and means to provide affordable homes, water availability, and sustain and invigorate our local economy.”

“Together, we continue to support our public employees so that we can provide our core services while maintaining fiscal responsibility,” she said. “Government functions because of its checks and balances, and I will continue to represent the people of Maui Nui on this level.”

Crivello chairs the Housing, Human Services and Transportation Committee.

Guzman said he’s been honored to have the opportunity to “represent my generation and contribute energy and a new perspective to the council.”

“I had expected that after having served 10 years on the council, Joe would be willing to pass the torch of responsibility down to the next generation,” he said.

Nevertheless, Guzman said he appreciates that in a democracy “anyone can run for office.”

“And while I have respect for anyone who wants to be a candidate, I do feel that I’m doing what people wanted me to do when I got elected,” he said.

Guzman chairs the council’s Economic Development, Energy, Agriculture and Recreation Committee.

If Mateo, Pontanilla and Molina return to the council, they will get a pay raise.

Now, according to the Mayor’s Office, Molina earns $70,000, Mateo $64,000 and Pontanilla $47,000 a year as executive assistants.

Council members received a 15 percent pay raise as of July 1. Now, council members’ gross annual income is $76,475, and the council chairman or chairwoman earns $82,225 annually.

According to Campaign Spending Commission reports for the period of Jan. 1 to June 30 of this year, Mateo and Pontanilla have larger campaign war chests than Crivello and Guzman, respectively. And, White has an advantage over Molina.

The online records show:

* White has a campaign fund surplus of $12,105.59, while Molina has $3,739.20.

* Mateo has $7,404.13, while Crivello has a deficit of $947.16.

* Pontanilla has $2,907.32, while Guzman has $505.09.

Two other former council members work for the Arakawa administration.

Former West Maui Council Member Jo Anne Johnson Winer is director of the Department of Transportation, and former East Maui Council Member Bill Medeiros is an executive assistant to the mayor.

Winer gets $107,410 annually, and Medeiros is paid $64,920.

When asked if she had any plans to return to her former West Maui seat, Winer said: “Oh God, no. Not on your life.”

“I just love doing what I’m doing in transportation,” she said.

Medeiros did not return a phone call seeking comment.

* Brian Perry can be reached at