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Candidates for council seat focus on balance

DECISION 2016 Editor’s note: This is another in a series of feature stories on contested races in Tuesday’s general election. Stories will appear most days through Sunday. A complete look at all Maui County Council and state House contests was published as a special section in the Oct. 23 edition of The Maui News.

Both candidates for the Maui County Council’s Kahului residency seat emphasized balance in decision-making across the issues, with the incumbent touting his support by both the old political guard and the new progressive groups while his opponent talked about speaking for the old-timer “local people.”

Incumbent Don Guzman, an attorney, is seeking his third two-year term. He is being challenged by Vanessa Medeiros, a state public housing supervisor.

In this unusual general election with all nine council seats contested for the first time in two decades, Guzman said that he might be the only council candidate who has the backing of unions and business, the “old political regime” and the growing “progressive” groups that include environmentalists.

His progressive friends have told him that he is fair and that’s why he can win favor on both sides of the political fence, said Guzman, who is among nine council candidates on the ‘Ohana Coalition slate. The coalition supports open government and local and organic food production and respect for local values and traditions.

Don Guzman

However, he has not been a favorite of Mayor Alan Arakawa, who implied that voters should express their discontent at the polls over Guzman’s “nay” vote on a bill for emergency funding for Iao Valley flood work. Since the bill passed and “he won,” Guzman said that he doesn’t understand the basis for the mayor’s comment in the “Our County” column in The Maui News, published Oct. 21.

Guzman said that his vote was a representation of protesters who complained about the removal of rocks from the valley and the possible rerouting of the widened Wailuku River by the Sept. 13 flood. (Council Member Elle Cochran also voted no on the bill.) The county’s actions weren’t perfect, and maybe county officials could improve their response to the next disaster, he said.

“I think this administration was so used to a different type of politician in the council that would . . . rubber stamp,” he said. “The line of questioning sometimes offends the administration. It shouldn’t be offensive, because I am doing my job.”

Although seven incumbents are facing challengers (two seats are vacant due to term limits), it is difficult for challengers, like Medeiros, to defeat sitting council members. Name recognition is often an impediment in a countywide race, though Medeiros challenged that notion in her case. She was born and raised on Maui; her dad, the late Stanley Medeiros Sr., was a longtime Hawaii National Guardsman and Bronze Star recipient and an entertainer; and she was the director of Housing and Human Concerns in the administration of former Mayor Charmaine Tavares.

“I may not have the press coverage that the incumbent has, but I do know I am known,” she said.

Vanessa Medeiros

In explaining her decision to take on Guzman, Medeiros said that “a lot of people have been disgruntled with the council and just feeling that their voices are not being heard.”

“My motto is: It’s about the people. It’s about time,” she said. “My most important message is that we need to bring back balance to our communities. We are forgetting our people. We are forgetting our family. We are forgetting the people who are invested in our communities.

“We local people, we say, ‘We born here, we going die here.’ A lot of those people are being forgotten.”

There is divide in the Maui County community, she said, and the local people to whom she is referring are facing the challenge of a “vocal minority” with money, who will “spend that money to get what they want.”

The reaction of local people is to “no make waves . . . just sit in silence,” Medeiros said. “And what I’ve been saying is, ‘guys we need to stop that.’ I am not saying we need to fight. . . . All I am saying is we need you guys to stand up, say ‘look enough is enough.’ ”

The bottom line is that “we all gotta live together” and “have to make room for each other,” she said.

“We all have to be cognizant of what community is,” she said. “Community is not I come here, I take whatever I can and I leave. That is not community. That is taking.”

The key is bringing back balance, she said. “We have to give our families the opportunity to know that there is hope,” she said. “We have to help people understand what community is all about.”

Guzman, too, believes that there is “a sense of divide” in the county as the demographics change.

“The drums are beating. Our voices are not being heard,” he said. “It is very important to start bridging these gaps.”

Guzman said what he is “committed to is listening.”

“I think that is most important for a leader, to be able to listen and not shine people off,” he said.

He may not agree with a point of view, “but there is some value in it,” Guzman said. He seeks to find common ground to formulate a balanced compromise.

“We as a community, we as leaders, need to start saying, ‘OK, I listen to you. I hear you. I hear what you are saying.’ I also hear the other side, too,” he said. “By taking both of these perspectives . . . you find the common ground.”

“There is good value in both perspectives,” Guzman said. “It’s being able to bridge it together, and that is probably the most difficult part of the job.”

A compromise will likely leave both sides unhappy, but his goal is to support bills that will “benefit the community as a whole,” he said.

Being an elected official and a leader in the community also means working within the bounds of decorum that is not always seen in politics today. It’s also understanding that debates, which can become heated and passionate at times, are not personal.

“I think it’s part of the job that once you take that oath there are some things you cannot say,” Guzman said. “You give up that right to actually accost people like a normal citizen.

“Once you become a politician, you are a leader. You are voted by the people, and there is a certain standard that you should live by, a certain honor.”

In wide-ranging interviews this week, both candidates discussed their views on various issues.

The faces of homelessness

Guzman, who dealt with homeless people during his time as an attorney, said that the county needs to commission studies to better understand the differing faces of homelessness — those suffering from drug abuse, family displacement due to economic circumstances, mental illness and those who do not want to be housed — and to develop a plan.

He explained that there is a shortage of resources to help the different groups of homeless people. It takes a team to assess and provide help to one homeless individual, he said. There are not enough resources to serve the needs of the homeless population.

His thoughts about dealing with the problem include creating a special improvement district where businesses pay a little more in taxes for services they want, such as trash collection and increased security to deal with homeless people who are parking and spending the night in their lots; encouraging more affordable housing, which might free up more rentals; and possible rent controls.

The mayor presented a package of bills late last year to deal with the homeless problem, including new vagrancy laws and the purchasing of shelters. Arakawa wanted the council to act quickly to take advantage of Gov. David Ige’s emergency proclamation that suspended some restrictions to create shelters for homeless people.

The council has not yet passed bills in the package. Guzman said that Ige’s proclamation was aimed at Honolulu, which was prepared to move quickly. “We were really caught off guard,” he said.

The million-dollar price tag gave him pause. He also believed that the mayor’s vagrancy laws — which covered stealing of shopping carts, urinating and defecating in public, and sitting and lying on sidewalks — were duplicative of current laws and possibly unconstitutional and were “targeting” homeless people.

Medeiros concurred with Guzman about the need to “triage” homeless people. She said that housing should be found for families with children and more so if they are working because “they are trying to make the effort.”

She did not have solutions for homeless people suffering from mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction. They cannot be put into typical housing because they can be a danger to themselves and others, she said.

“My question is ‘why can’t we figure it out?’ ” Medeiros said.

And, like Guzman, she has issues with the mayor’s package of homeless measures. She said that the proposed vagrancy laws were unenforceable and were “trying to make a special interest group feel good” but not really solving the problem.

She also doesn’t feel the parks department’s recent decision to lock the gate Kanaha Park overnight was a good idea.

“What they were trying to do was to penalize the homeless, but we impact all the other citizens as a result,” said Medeiros, referring to fishermen and divers who were blocked from access to their fishing grounds.

“Closing it without having a good plan is not a good thing,” she said.

Developing affordable housing

Medeiros does not support current bills in the council that would create greater density by allowing ohana units on smaller lots. “We need to look at units for families, two-, three-, four-bedroom units,” she said.

She took issue with the county’s income formulas for qualifying residents and the variable final price for affordable units based on income. The formula is based on federal Housing and Urban Development income requirements.

“I think we should figure out what the price is,” she said. “Just set a price.”

The price needs to be what a typical family can afford; current formulas use assumptions that are not applicable for Hawaii. “Those calculations are more than our families can afford,” she said.

The county has the ability to adjust those formulas, she said.

Contractors have told Medeiros that they can build affordable homes for residents, not fancy ones but up to code. “Maybe we need to go back to the concept of the old Arisumi, Hicks Homes, the true starter homes,” she said.

All candidates this election season have talked about affordable housing, “so my challenge to all is if you really support it, we need to put our heads together, and we need to create the biggest CIP project the county has ever seen,” Medeiros said.

This could include the county purchasing parcels and maybe using the land trust concept where the county owns the land, to take that cost out of the purchase price, and allowing families to own the home, she said.

Guzman also supports the land trust concept with the possibility of the county creating the trust. Residents would be able to earn equity on the home and later to sell the home if they choose.

Other proposals include tweaking the revolving affordable housing fund to be able to purchase property, he said. The county could put out a request for proposal for a private contractor to develop the land, garner a proportion of the sales and return the money to the fund to develop more projects. There would be deed restrictions, under this scenario.

Looking longer term, Guzman believes that the county should look into hiring an affordable housing czar, “a specialist who is really experienced in developing affordable housing.”

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

_______________

Don S. Guzman*

Age: 47

Birthplace: Philippines

Residence: Kahului

Occupation:  Maui County Council member, since 2013; private practice attorney

Education: Bachelor of Arts and Sciences, Creighton University; Juris Doctor, Ohio Northern University College of Law

Community service: Lahaina Junior Golf Association; Christ the King lector; stepped down from all other positions in nonprofit organizations that appear before the Council to avoid conflict of interest

Family: Married, three children

* incumbent

_______________

Vanessa A. Medeiros

Birthplace: Wailuku

Residence: Kahului

Occupation: Public housing supervisor V, Hawaii Public Housing Authority

Education: Bachelor of Arts, professional services (business administration), University of Hawaii West Oahu, 1996; master’s degree in business administration, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2002

Work experience: Special events specialist, county Department of Parks and Recreation; institutional support-financial clerk, University of Hawaii Maui College; station manager, Alamo Rent A Car

Community service: Community Clinic of Maui, doing business as Malama Ike Ola Health Center, president, 2012-present

Family: Single

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