King new chairwoman, other officers elected

The new County Council poses for a photo Wednesday in Council Chambers. Shown are (sitting from left) Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Kelly King, Tamara Paltin, Alice Lee; (standing) Tasha Kama, Michael Molina, Riki Hokama, Yuki Lei Sugimura and Shane Sinenci. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

WAILUKU — The new Maui County Council elected Kelly King as chairwoman, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez as vice chairwoman and Tasha Kama as presiding officer pro tempore during the council’s first meeting of the term on Wednesday.

The council decided on its leadership in less than an hour, much faster than the last inauguration day meeting when the leadership still was unresolved by 10 p.m. and the meeting ended around 3:30 a.m. the next day.

This time, the council adjourned at 9:10 p.m. after adopting its rules, approving staff and passing all of the proposed committees. All of the leadership votes were unanimous, though some voted for King with reservations.

“I don’t really look at it as winning, cause I don’t look at it as a position of power and control,” King said afterwards. “I really look at it as an obligation to try to bring fairness and openness and transparency to the council and to empower the people.”

Kama nominated King for chairwoman, saying that she was impressed with King when they both served on the Board of Education, and that King has experience as a successful business owner with good networking and communication skills.

New County Council Chairwoman Kelly King receives a lei from Mahina Martin in Council Chambers.

Lee, Hokama and Sugimura voted yes but with reservations. Lee said King had “some very admirable qualities, but I don’t always agree with her on all the issues,” while Hokama said that he had tried to reach out to King to discuss the upcoming council but that she never met with him. (King later apologized if Hokama felt there was a miscommunication and said she didn’t hear back from him on a meeting date.)

After King was elected, Sinenci nominated Rawlins-Fernandez, praising her as a “constant portrayal of integrity and professionalism” and that she brought dedication and strong family values.

Rawlins-Fernandez then nominated Kama for pro tem because of her “big heart,” her belief in diplomacy and compromise and her understanding of everyday people’s struggles.

“Thank you to my colleagues for their faith and their trust and their aloha to me,” Kama said. “I’ve never heard many of you speak the way you’ve spoken today to me or about me, but I like it, so don’t stop.”

But the most hotly debated issue was over salaries for Office of Council Services staff, who haven’t gotten raises since 2012, Director Maria Zielinski said. With the stagnant salaries, morale has been low and it’s been hard for the office to retain staff. Zielinski said her office has been working with five vacancies.

Council Members (from left) Shane Sinenci, Michael Molina, Alice Lee, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Riki Hokama, Tamara Paltin, Yuki Lei Sugimura and Tasha Kama take the oath of office Wednesday in Council Chambers. Not in the photo is council Chairwoman Kelly King.

But Hokama, who chaired the Budget and Finance Committee during the last term, was concerned about asking six new council members to decide on salary increases when they hadn’t had much time to work with the staff and weren’t familiar with budget issues.

“Do you know who you’re giving raises to?” Hokama asked. “Have you seen their work effort and their work product? . . . This is not the place for the first meeting of the council to deal with this kind of pay increases. I think you guys should have time to talk to the employee, have it reviewed, and make up your mind. . . . We can do retroactive (increases) come budget.”

Zielinski said the approved increases in salaries would amount to $51,000 for the rest of the fiscal year. She added that because her office has five vacancies, they’ve actually been saving money, and that money for raises could come from other areas. For example, the office has $1.2 million for audits but has only used about $600,000 up to this point.

Molina suggested the council defer the issue to give members time to work with staff and then take it up again during budget talks in March. But King said she was not going to defer the issue.

“We have some employees who may walk out the door if we don’t do this,” she said. “We have some very good employees that I’ve worked with over the last two years who have been very frustrated, and we are having a hard time attracting people to Office of Council Services. . . . I’m convinced that this is the right move.”

New Council Member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez was selected vice chairwoman of the council

Council members eventually approved Josiah Nishita as the county clerk with a salary of $105,000 and Maggie Clark as deputy county clerk with a salary of $94,000. They also approved Zielinski as director of Council Services and bumped her salary from $127,059 to $135,000. They also gave David Raatz a salary bump from $127,948 to $135,000 and approved him as the office’s supervising legislative attorney. Hokama was the lone dissenting vote to the pay increases.

At the last inauguration day meeting, 75 people testified for five hours. On Wednesday, 17 people testified for just over an hour, with many expressing optimism for the new council and the hope that members could work with the mayor — a unified body of 10 rather than a divided body of five.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am about this day,” testifier Mark Joiner said. “I think this is going to go down in history as a day that Maui Nui changed, that all of a sudden there’s this bright new sunrise over Haleakala.”

Several testifiers spoke in favor of King, Rawlins-Fernandez and Kama assuming the three leadership roles. They also supported the proposed committees, especially the move to give affordable housing its own committee.

The council eventually passed all of the proposed committees. They are: Affordable Housing; Economic Development and Budget; Environmental, Agricultural and Cultural Preservation; Government, Ethics and Transparency; Healthy Families and Communities; Multimodal Transportation; Planning and Sustainable Land Use; and Water and Infrastructure.

New Council Member Tasha Kama is congratulated Wednesday. She was selected pro tempore of council.­

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

COMMENTS