West Maui council candidates vie for open seat on panel
Trio seeking spot have varying backgrounds but similar goals
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s election feature, part of The Maui News’ coverage of contested Maui County races in Saturday’s primary election, focuses on candidates seeking the West Maui County Council residency seat. Stories on other races have been published over the last couple of weeks leading to the primary election. A primary election voter guide offering details on all county and state House and Senate contests was included in July 29 edition.
Maui County Council Member Elle Cochran’s decision to give up her West Maui residency seat to run for mayor has left an open seat with three candidates vying to advance from Saturday’s primary to the Nov. 6 general election.
They include two former Cochran opponents: Kanamu Balinbin, the chef and owner of Nalu Grindz and Coconut Grove Catering; and Rick Nava, president and owner of MSI Maui and Aloha Moment, photography and video companies that provide services to corporate and individual clients, including Old Lahaina Luau.
Maui County ocean safety lifeguard Tamara Paltin, who ran unsuccessfully to unseat Mayor Alan Arakawa in 2014, is back as a candidate. This time, she’s aiming to succeed Cochran, a fellow ‘Ohana Coalition candidate and leader in the Save Honolua Coalition.
Paltin has endorsements from the Sierra Club, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, UNITE Here Local 5, the Pono Hawai’i Initiative, S.A.F.E. Sustainable Action Fund for the Environment and the Maui Pono Network.
Balinbin has been endorsed by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142, the Hawaii Carpenters Union Local 745, the Hawaii State AFL-CIO, the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association and IBEW Local 1186 (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), the Hawaii Laborers Union Local 386 and Hawaii Region Council of Carpenters.
In a series of interviews with The Maui News, the candidates discussed their backgrounds, their reasons for running for the County Council, West Maui’s isolation from the rest of the island, Maui’s carrying capacity for visitors and their position on the possibility of the county raising money by enacting a surcharge of as much as a half of a percent on the state’s 4 percent general excise tax. Maui County is the only county in the state not to add the surcharge, which the state Legislature allowed with a 2030 expiration.
A lifetime resident of Lahaina and a 1986 graduate of Lahainaluna High School, Balinbin, 50, ran for the West Maui council residency seat in 2016, losing to Cochran 31,970 to 12,575, or 60.4 to 23.7 percent.
He served in the U.S. Army Reserve’s 411 Combat Engineering Battalion from 1986 to 1992. Training took him to places like South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Guam.
Serving in the Army Reserve taught him discipline and camaraderie, he said.
He learned how to cook and the value of hard work in his family’s restaurant, the Coconut Grove, an iconic restaurant in Lahaina in the 1970s and ’80s. Uncles and cousins ran the kitchen, he said.
“I really miss those times. . . . It was hard work, but it was fun,” he said. “We were always with family.”
And, politicians would drop by. Memorable faces included state Speaker of the House and after that Mayor Elmer Cravalho, Mayor Hannibal Tavares, Gov. George Ariyoshi and Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, he said.
Interactions with them sparked an interest in politics and what elected leaders could accomplish for their community.
For example, in the ’70s and ’80s, everyone foresaw the future impact of tourism on Maui, Balinbin said, and he remembered Cravalho as a proponent for ensuring the hotels and resorts provided workforce housing.
“We really wanted the developers to take care of the community,” he said.
Early developers provided employee housing, but that tradition of taking care the community has fallen by the wayside, he said.
Balinbin said that he ran in 2016, in part, because not enough was being done to address odor and pollution coming from the West Maui Wastewater Reclamation Facility. He said he believes there are ways to eliminate foul smells and get rid of ocean-polluting wastewater injection wells.
With runoff of development and injection wells, the “reef is dying all over the place,” he said. And, he’s not satisfied with the county’s response.
“The county’s not cooperating,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me, coming up with solutions and not being heard. As a council member, I would be heard.”
To address West Maui’s isolation, the long-awaited hospital project needs to be completed, he said. And a satellite office for state and expanded county business needs to be established in West Maui.
When asked whether he’d support Maui County adopting a general excise tax surcharge, Balinbin said he would back it.
“We need that so that we can build up our infrastructure,” he said.
Balinbin applauded the Legislature’s passage of a bill to provide $570 million for affordable housing. And, he said, the county needs more money from the transient accommodations tax, also known as the hotel room tax.
There’s a dire need for affordable housing in West Maui, he said, along with better roads and infrastructure.
“People come to this side to work; yet we’re still treated like an outsider,” he said.
Balinbin acknowledged having felony convictions.
According to a Maui News story published on Aug. 9, 2003, a judge ordered no further jail time for Balinbin and put him on five years’ probation for forgery and theft charges.
He had been admitted in June 2001 to the Maui Drug Court program, but he later relapsed and didn’t show up for an October 2002 court hearing. And, he went missing for seven months, a prosecutor said.
After being terminated from the Drug Court program, Balinbin was found guilty of second-degree forgery, theft of a credit card, fraudulent use of a credit card and second-degree theft. The crimes happened in March 2000. Balinbin also has 1998 convictions for third-degree assault and second-degree terroristic threatening.
Of his convictions, Balinbin said in an emailed statement: “What I can say about my experience is that I made the mistake and have always accepted responsibility for my actions. While incarcerated, I have learned that correctional officers are overworked, that Maui Community Correctional Center is overcrowded (four adult males in a cell designed for two) and most important I have been able to share my experiences with the younger generation so that they don’t go down the same path.”
Young people with whom he’s shared his experiences have shared that they need to “strive to be a better person.”
“I was able to help (tutor) individuals (to) get their GED (high school equivalency diploma),” he said. “I feel that the County of Maui needs to utilize the prison population to help with the poor condition we have at our county and state parks. It’s inexpensive labor so it will save the county money.”
Nava, 59, was born in the municipality of Balungao, about a 2.5-hour drive north of Manila, in the province of Pangasinan, the Philippines. He was the middle child of seven children.
When he was 11 years old, he traveled to Maui with his family to join his father, who had immigrated in 1965 to work in a hotel. His grandfather came to Maui in the late 1930s to work at Pioneer Mill.
His father and grandfather sent money back home to the Philippines where it helped the family survive.
Nava speaks Ilocano fluently and understands Tagalog.
He attended public schools on Maui and graduated from Lahainaluna High School in 1976. He entered the U.S. Army, serving for 29 years in both the Army and Army Reserve. He retired as a staff sergeant. He served in the 411th Engineering Battalion. He worked as a carpenter and a heavy equipment operator.
He returned to Maui in 1980 and served in the Army Reserve until 2005.
In 2014, he ran as a County Council candidate for the West Maui residency seat, but he finished last with 4,920 votes, or 17.4 percent, in a three-way race to advance to the general election.
Before Nava’s father came to Maui, he was a teacher and a successful politician, but he walked away from his life in the Philippines to seek a better life for his family in Hawaii.
The Balungao area was an agrarian area where access to clean water and sanitation were not taken for granted.
“We didn’t have much (but) we don’t know what it’s like to be poor,” he said. “Everybody have the same thing.”
When money came from Hawaii, Nava’s mother would help others. “She helped a lot of the people in our town,” he said.
From his mother, Nava learned the importance of community service and “trying to make a difference in people’s lives.”
On Maui, Nava has served three terms as president of the Rotary Club of Lahaina, his last term ending June 30. He’s also been president of the West Maui Taxpayers Association, but he resigned in May to run for County Council.
He’s also been treasurer of the Maui Chamber of Commerce. And, he continues his work with an after-school tutoring program in Lahaina.
Nava also has been prominent in coaching youths and organizing basketball leagues and tournaments in West Maui.
Nava said he also wanted to get young people involved in community service along with sports. So, he led efforts to have team members paint over graffiti in Lahaina with the help of the county Department of Parks and Recreation.
Nava said he believes he has a lot to offer as a council member, with his leadership, community involvement and small-business experience.
“I’m very familiar with what’s going on in the business world,” he said. And, “I believe I have a good knowledge of what’s happening in West Maui. . . . I’m out there daily in Lahaina and the community. I have an understanding of the needs of the people.”
Nava said he knows the S.A.F.E.-supported ‘Ohana Coalition is backing Paltin, spending a lot of money to promote her, and that’s the “reason why I’m campaigning very hard.”
He’s taken out political advertisements and done hours of roadside sign-waving in the mornings and afternoons, he said.
West Maui’s isolation is a problem for the community, he said. If the road is closed by an accident or mishap, drivers are “stuck . . . they don’t have a choice” but to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
“It affects everyone,” he said.
Nava said he opposes Maui County adopting a general excise tax surcharge.
“It is already very, very expensive to live here on the island,” he said. “I’m totally opposed to more taxation.”
As for Maui’s tourism carrying capacity, Nava said he believes capacity has been reached, which is why more money from visitor spending should come to West Maui to pay for infrastructure improvements.
The county’s income is not keeping pace with costs, he said.
Nava said he’d like to see an expansion of public transit for West Maui, especially later bus pickups in the area to provide transportation for workers getting off late shifts.
He said he’s talked to hotel employees who’d love to take the bus to and from work in West Maui, but they can’t use the service if its last pickup is at 8:30 p.m.
“They don’t have a way to get back home,” he said. With a later pickup, “they could sleep on the bus on the way home. To me, it would be a great deal.”
Paltin, 40, was born in Honolulu and moved to Hilo with her family when she was about 5 years old. She went to public schools and graduated from Hilo High School in 1995. She had planned to become a teacher and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and education from Northern Arizona University.
After graduation, she returned home and was preparing to take a standard examination for teachers when there was a strike by teachers. That career interruption led to a job as a beach lifeguard on the Big Island. She loved working outdoors and chose a career as a lifeguard, moving to Maui in November 2001 to take a beach lifeguard position, which was “pretty much a dream come true.”
In 2009, she was a Ka Ipu Kukui leadership fellow and then became president of the Save Honolua Coalition.
She said her leadership training taught her to seek solutions, focusing on results or “the end in mind.”
Having worked 17 years as a Maui lifeguard, Paltin said she believes that experience would help her bring a unique perspective to the County Council.
“I think that a lot of times . . . there’s a big disconnect with what’s going on outside the county building or with county workers,” she said.
Her leadership training also was part of the reason for her long-shot run for mayor in 2014. “My main objective was to bring awareness to certain issues and have them discussed at forums,” she said.
Paltin advanced from a seven-candidate field to the general election, but she lost to Arakawa 25,435 to 18,162, or 55.3 to 39.5 percent.
After that, she took a break from politics, thinking that “maybe it’s not for me.”
She skipped the 2016 election. But, this year, family and friends urged her to run for Cochran’s County Council seat, and “I decided to give it a try again,” she said.
Also, she said that because she knows West Maui so well, she believes she could be more of service to the community from a council seat.
Paltin said she’s changed her views about campaign financing. In 2014, she didn’t accept donations of more than $100, but that turned out to be a “big hindrance imposed upon myself.” Although she said she still feels the same way about big money influence in campaigns, she’s become “a little more realistic about what it takes to win a campaign.”
Now, she accepts larger donations, but she maintains such contributions would not influence her conduct as a council member.
“I really believe that people who donate to me (do so because of) what I stand for, for what I accomplished,” she said. “I always listen, try to look for win-win solutions and stay true to values.”
She acknowledged her support from the ‘Ohana Coalition, an offshoot of the SHAKA movement, but her campaign has not coordinated with the group. (SHAKA stands for Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina.)
She said she sees the group’s support as “coming into alignment with my ideals, not the other way around.”
Paltin said she sees West Maui’s isolation as a major challenge for the community. But she said the County Council can help influence positive change by working with leaders in state and federal governments.
Paltin said she’s open to discussing the possibility of Maui County getting a surcharge on the general excise tax for unfunded transportation projects, such as finishing the Lahaina bypass or working on the Paia bypass or the Kihei north-south collector road.
However, “the problem with raising the GET tax is it taxes everyone on everything and it hits those who can least afford to pay it the hardest,” she said.
Consideration of raising the tax would need to include a tax credit for low-income earners “who are already struggling to make ends meet,” she said.
On Maui’s carrying capacity for tourism, Paltin said the island’s at capacity in terms of infrastructure for West Maui, including sewage treatment capacity.
She said the County Council could do more to work with the Hawai’i Tourism Authority and Maui Visitors Bureau to manage visitor impacts, trying to spread visitor arrivals throughout the year, for example.
“It’s also important to communicate there are appropriate locations for tourists, and it’s not our residential areas, remote hazardous coastlines or valleys during rainfall events,” she said. “The council can represent community concerns effectively to the visitors bureau and hotel industry and work together to address the negative impacts.”
* Staff Writer Lila Fujimoto contributed to this report. Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Occupation: Chef/Owner Nalu Grindz and Coconut Grove Catering (1996-present)
Political experience: Maui County Council candidate, 2016
Military experience: U.S. Army Reserve 411 Combat Engineer Battalion (1986-92)
Education: Lahainaluna High School, 1986 graduate; U.S. Army Quartermaster School, Fort Lee, Va., 1986-87 (honor graduate)
Community service: Sacred Hearts School Bazaar chairperson/Food Booth contributor 2013/16-18; event organizer Hui O Pohaku S-Turns Keiki Surf Contest 2013-present; fundraiser contributor Lahainaluna JV/varsity football, Lahainaluna girls softball, Lahainaluna Hawaiiana; Lahaina Chiefs Pop Warner, Napili Wrestling 2012-present; sponsor Maui High HOSA/Family Fun Night, Maui High Voyaging, Young Life Kumulani
Family: Married, four children
Occupation: President/owner of MSI Maui and Aloha Moment, photography and video production business
Political experience: Maui County Council candidate, 2014
Military experience: Served 29 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve, 411th Engineer Battalion
Education: Lahainaluna High School, 1976 graduate
Community service: Rotary Club of Lahaina, three terms as president; former president of the West Maui Taxpayers Association; treasurer of the Maui Chamber of Commerce; Maui Filipino Community Council; Lahaina After School Tutoring Program
Family: Married, two children
Tamara Akiko Maile Paltin
Occupation / work experience: Ocean safety lieutenant, DT Fleming Beach, County of Maui
Political experience: Mayoral candidate, 2014
Education: Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics/education, Northern Arizona University
Community service: Save Honolua Coalition president, 2009-present; West Maui Preservation Association president, 2018-present; Hawaii Government Employee Association Unit 3/14 steward, 2008-present; Ka Ipu Kukui Leadership fellow, 2008-present; Hawaii Lifeguard Association, 1997-present
Family: Married, two children