WAILUKU - It's not a cliche when Maui County Council Chairman Danny Mateo says he's come full circle in his 15-year career with the council.
"Part of what makes my tenure a little different is that 15 years ago, I started right here," Mateo said last week in an interview in his seventh-floor office in the Kalana O Maui building in Wailuku.
Mateo had been the executive assistant to former Council Chairman Pat Kawano of Molokai and was named to fill the remainder of Kawano's term in 2002 when Kawano unexpectedly died. Mateo was elected to the Molokai residency seat later that year and was subsequently re-elected four more times.
Maui County Council Chairman Danny Mateo is leaving the council after serving the limit of five consecutive two-year terms. It got emotional, at times, during his last council meeting Friday in the Council Chambers.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
"Who would've thought 15 years later that I'd become chair of the council? We've gone full circle," he said. "It's been a major whirlwind that really never ended."
On Jan. 2, Mateo, 61, will complete his fifth consecutive term on the council and lead an inauguration ceremony for new council members, including his replacement, Stacy Helm Crivello. He could not seek re-election due to term limits.
But he said he's open to the idea of seeking elected office again, saying, "You never close doors. I would definitely consider looking at opportunities."
Asked what he's looking forward to the day after his term officially ends, Mateo said: "I'm looking to stay on with the county."
Mayor Alan Arakawa said Mateo will join his administration.
"Danny has a lot experience and a lot of institutional knowledge, and we believe we can put that really great experience to work," Arakawa said. "We definitely have things in mind for someone of his caliber."
Reflecting back on his council career, Mateo said he's most proud of directing much-needed attention to the needs of Molokai, the island he calls home despite being born and raised on Maui.
He cited such accomplishments as getting a new $12 million fire station built in Kaunakakai, and bringing the Kuha'o Business Center - which he called a "beehive of business training opportunities and resources" - under the county's Office of Economic Development when the center's previous funding ended.
"I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the opportunity to be able to look and plan for Maui's future, and when I reference Maui, it is the county because no one island stands alone," he said. "For me, one of the difficulties was just reminding everybody that there is Molokai, there is Lanai, and there is Hana. And our small communities, though small, we still deserve the recognition, the support and the services that are available to Maui island."
Before becoming chairman, Mateo authored the county's controversial Residential Workforce Housing legislation, with the idea that local residents have been priced out of home ownership due to Hawaii's high home prices and cost of living.
Aimed at providing homes affordable to residents with limited incomes, the law mandates that if developers want to build subdivisions, 25 percent to 50 percent of homes must be affordable according to federal guidelines. The percentage required depends on how many dwellings will be offered for sale above and below a $600,000 threshold. (So far this year, the average single-family home in Maui County sold for $680,328, based on year-to-date sales through November.)
The original workforce housing bill passed unanimously in 2006 and survived a veto by Arakawa, who at that time was serving in his first term as mayor.
"It was rather divisive because when there's nothing and you create something that provides directives, solid directives, everybody and their grandmother was holding signs," Mateo said. "During the mayor's first term, this was not his favorite ordinance, and we banged heads many times on this," Mateo said.
He acknowledges that the timing of the law's creation coincided with the start of the economic recession and a subsequent collapse of the housing market.
"The question everyone asks is, if this policy is so good, how come there's no affordable housing?" Mateo said. "The reality is the timing just didn't work out."
Still, he said the legislation is "workable" and provides a "recipe."
"The bottom line is, do you want homes to be built or just at-market homes? And if you're building market homes, who are you building it for? If it's not for our own local people - the workforce of your communities - then your community is being sold short," he said. "You've got to take care of your people in order for them to become contributing members of our community. One of the ways you have to do that is by providing the very basics. They need shelter, they need a place that they can call home."
Mateo said he's also proud of the working relationship the council has been able to establish with the mayor's administration, which he says allows everyone to focus on "the people's agenda."
Arakawa agreed, saying: "We thank Danny for being very instrumental in building a cooperative council. Prior to Danny being chair, a major effort of the council was to try to make sure the administration was in conflict with them. . . . I'm personally very appreciative that he could see past the politics for the community's benefit."
Mateo said there's still much to be done by the council to continue to improve Maui County and to ensure a healthy future.
For example, he said he does not support the Maui Island Plan, which he believes puts the county in a "vulnerable position" through the creation of urban-growth boundaries.
"We've passed the Maui Island Plan, and we don't even know how much it will cost to implement," he said.
The plan is intended to direct growth over the next two decades.
"As a legislator, it's my job to know how much we're spending," he said. "We approved a plan that could absorb the entire county budget. . . . So I'm hoping that the next council has the opportunity to revisit (the bill) that created this mess, which looked fine on paper, but the implementation is more complex than we thought."
He said the next council will have its share of challenges, especially in light of the recent death of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who would direct millions of federal dollars to the islands.
His advice to incoming council members, "knowing the intensity of the work that remains. . . . The people's business first. Special interests should be left at home."
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at email@example.com.