Early salvos were exchanged Friday after Mike Molina announced he'd seek the Maui County Council Makawao-Haiku-Paia residency seat that he surrendered because of term limits in 2010.
Facing re-election next year, incumbent Council Member Mike White questioned Molina's independence after serving as an executive assistant to Mayor Alan Arakawa, and he charged that Molina was probably encouraged to run against him because he's been asking "tough questions."
Molina, 53, of Makawao denied that he's been recruited as a candidate by the mayor or members of his administration. Since Molina's potential candidacy surfaced two months ago, there has been "interest building" in his candidacy from "those wanting me to serve," he said.
"I've decided to throw my hat in the ring and run," said Molina, who served on the council from 2001 to 2010. He said that he has been urged to run by grass-roots supporters, "people out on the street."
Administration spokesman Rod Antone said Molina has been urged to run by "a lot of people in the community coming up to him not pleased with what Mike White is doing."
"We can't tell somebody to run for office," Antone said. "That's a very personal decision. Mr. White should be looking at his constituency, instead of the administration."
Molina's decision to run or not "is totally up to him," he said.
White, 64, the council's Budget and Finance Committee chairman, won Molina's vacated seat in 2010 and is midway through his second term.
"I am proud of my record as a council member and acknowledge that I am known for asking tough questions of the Arakawa administration," White said. "In fact, it is likely a major reason Mr. Molina is seeking to run against me."
White has been a leading critic of the Arakawa administration's handling of the demolition of the Old Wailuku Post Office early this year. It was leveled and hauled away to make way for a parking lot and eventually a new building. The administration has acknowledged erring when it did not seek council approval before the demolition to officially amend the county budget that only provided for "rehabilitating" the building.
On Friday afternoon, White said in an email: "Direct statements from the administration were made that Mr. Molina and other former council members (Danny Mateo and Joe Pontanilla) were going to run against incumbents when we started to seriously question the administration's handling of the Old Wailuku Post Office. Now, this announcement comes on the eve of important council votes on the acquisition of lands in Launiupoko. It does not seem coincidental."
White has stirred the administration's ire by questioning appraisal prices for the Launiupoko property sought by Arakawa for preservation as public open space. A revised appraisal on the property's 186 acres is on the council's Friday regular meeting agenda.
Molina said that, as a council member, he could offer dual perspectives, maintaining that he has "a better understanding of the legislative and executive branches." So, when drafting legislation, "I'll have a view from both ends," he said.
White said: "Voters have a clear choice in this upcoming election of either filling the council with individuals who have close associations with the mayor or those willing to maintain appropriate checks and balances to safeguard our county.
"Residents should have serious concerns over Mr. Molina's independence after serving on the mayor's staff for what will be nearly four years," White said. "I look forward to continuing to work for the people of Maui County in a transparent, fair and independent manner."
Molina said he's a "consensus builder" and has strived to bring together all those who'd be affected by a measure as a way to "create a better and more effective law."
"That's been my mantra," he said.
As an example, Molina pointed out that he led the council's effort to reduce the use of plastic bags in retail sales. The measure was first proposed in 2008 to stop lightweight plastic bags from polluting the landscape and ocean, but it did not go into effect until early 2011, when Maui consumers began using reusable bags to carry home groceries and other purchases.
Molina said that he advocated delaying implementation of the ban on plastic bags to give retailers ample time to get rid of their existing supplies and make the transition to reusable bags.
"It seems like the law has worked well," Molina said, pointing out that Hawaii and Kauai counties have followed suit, and Honolulu is on the verge of adopting its own version of the plastic bag reduction measure.
Now when Molina travels, he said he sees retailers using plastic bags for sales and remembers their adverse impact on the environment.
"I cringe when I see those plastic bags," he said.
Looking ahead, Molina said he sees top issues as being housing, a diversified economy, sustainability and help for small businesses.
He said that he would make a full-time commitment to council service, although he insisted that his pledge to do so was not a jab at White. In addition to his council service, White is the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel's general manager, a position he's held since 1985.
"To be effective, you've got to work at it full time," Molina said. "For me, I've always looked at it as a full-time job."
Molina acknowledged it won't be easy to unseat an incumbent council member.
"We'll have to work hard, and we'll do our best," he said. "Hopefully, the public will give us another chance to serve."
To raise money for his campaign, Molina has launched sales of 12-ounce containers of kalua pork for $8 each, he said. Pickups will be Dec. 7 in the Baldwin High School cafeteria. For more information, contact Molina at 264-4859.
Molina is the second former council member this week to announce that he'll seek to reclaim his old seat.
On Tuesday, Pontanilla said that he'd seek his former Kahului residency seat, attempting to unseat Council Member Don Guzman, chairman of the council's Economic Development, Energy, Agriculture and Recreation Committee.
On Friday, former council Chairman Danny Mateo said he was not ready to announce his intentions, although it "sure looks like it," as in it being more likely than not he would run. He put the likelihood of his bid for his former Molokai residency seat at 60-40 in favor.
Mateo said that he would likely make a final decision around the end of this year.
The Molokai seat incumbent is Council Member Stacy Crivello, chairwoman of the Housing, Human Services and Transportation Committee.
Pontanilla and Mateo also work as executive assistants in the Office of the Mayor.
If Molina, Mateo and Pontanilla return to the council, they would get a pay raise. According to the Mayor's Office, they earn annual salaries of $70,000, $64,000 and $47,000, respectively.
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 -woman earns $82,225.
The candidate filing deadline is June 3. The primary election is Aug. 9, and the general election is Nov. 4.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.