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Hokama faces political rookie for Lanai seat on the council

Riki Hokama

DECISION 2016 Editor’s note: This is another in a series of feature stories on contested races in the Nov. 8 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.

Political newcomer Gabe Johnson knows he’s up against a longtime and experienced politician in incumbent Riki Hokama, but said he is running for the Lanai residency seat on the Maui County Council to give people a choice.

“There is a lot of people that don’t want to run against Riki because of his name and (being that he’s) so powerful in local politics,” said the 43-year-old Johnson, an invasive species technician who has lived on Lanai for nearly a dozen years.

“We should challenge our politicians to work for what they want,” he continued. “They have to earn our votes. Nothing is a given.”

Hokama, 63, was raised on Lanai and is the son of the late Goro Hokama, a former Maui County Council member and labor leader. The younger Hokama served on the council from 1999 to 2008, when he left due to term limits. He was elected again in 2012 and has served since.

Gabe Johnson

“I think the island understands and knows the differences between the two of us (and) who they feel can serve the island the best at this time,” he said

Both men are seeking to win the council residency seat for Lanai in the general election Nov. 8.

Johnson said he is part of the Aloha ‘Aina or Maui Ohana slate of candidates who are trying for the most part to unseat incumbents and change the composition of the council. They include candidates such as Alika Atay, seeking the open Wailuku-Waikapu-Waihee residency seat, and Kelly King, running against incumbent Don Couch for the South Maui residency seat.

Johnson is an employee of Pulama Lana’i, the entity that manages the island for billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns most of Lanai. Johnson said that, if elected, he would probably leave his job, even though he can be fair in making decisions on the council.

“I’m a Lanai resident first and foremost,” Johnson said.

He moved to Lanai 12 years ago, after taking a camping trip to the island when he was a teacher at Lahaina Intermediate School. After passing no cars as he made his way to Lanai City, he said that the island was “just what I was looking for.”

“I was lucky to enough to find it,” he said.

Prior to moving to Maui, Johnson, who was raised in Cleveland, taught English as a second language in Japan before landing a teaching internship in New York City. Johnson was recruited to work at Lahaina Intermediate in the early 2000s following his internship.

He said that living in so many different places has taught him to adapt to people in different surroundings and to be an active listener. “I’m respective of the host culture,” he said.

Johnson explained that he is running to give his teenage daughter and other children on Lanai opportunities to stay on the island with a job and a home, to make sure the island is left in a good condition for the future and to increase affordable housing.

“I think affordable housing is a great equalizer to increase the middle class,” he said.

This can be achieved through a land trust, a nonprofit that owns land but allows affordable homes to be built on it by families. The home is made affordable by removing the cost of the land. The home can be sold and bought by different individuals, but the land under it remains under the trust’s control and ownership.

On Lanai, where many people earn the minimum wage, it is difficult to find homes that people can afford, he said.

Hokama said that the county and developers need to help families build what they can afford, instead of dictating affordable prices to local families. This could be a $250,000 home, with just two bedrooms and one bathroom, he said. The homes could be simply designed homes, not custom ones that drive up the prices.

The county also could assist with developing the subdivision. Hokama said he would help fund developments as long as the county breaks even. “I got no problem, I’m happy to help the local guys get this chance,” he said.

The county also could help by leaving open easy opportunities for families to expand their homes when they have raised the equity by saving.

Hokama would like to see more economic diversification on the island, as well as more support for local businesses and more employment choices. Currently, Pulama Lana’i controls rental space and leases and operates businesses that compete against locally owned establishments, Hokama said.

“The competition is kind of skewed,” he said. “For me, it’s not a healthy situation.”

Hokama said that the county could look into acquiring land to help agricultural and business activities flourish and assisting in developing opportunities in technology through such organizations as the Maui Economic Development Board and its Women in Technology program.

On countywide issues, the two men share common ground in the belief that county government and the council should communicate more with the public.

“Government needs to communicate much clearer and better and more frequently with the general community,” Hokama said. He pointed to the County Charter and the state constitutional amendments on this year’s general election ballot, which lack widespread educational efforts to inform the voters.

“Most people are going to vote ‘no’ or leave it blank,” Hokama said. “I take my share of the responsibility. We definitely can do a better job in informing our community.”

Johnson is a “firm believer in the Sunshine Law” and open meetings. “It’s our duty as council members to tell the community more of what we are doing.”

He said he cannot find up-to-date minutes from county meetings, including those from boards and commissions. For example, Johnson said that he was looking for Lanai Planning Commission meeting minutes on the internet but the latest minutes he found were three years old.

“The internet and the web are a great way to include the community for guys like me that are off island, (because) I can’t attend the meetings.” he said. “If we incorporate the use of the internet and the use of technology, we can make a more transparent government.”

Beyond open government, another county issue Johnson raised was developing more opportunity for sustainable agriculture. He pointed to the 36,000 acres that will be left open on Maui as Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. ends its sugar operations this year.

Johnson recognizes that crops will not immediately flourish on old cane land, as was the case on Lanai when pineapple shut down. However, the soil can be reinvigorated with the aid of microbes and by planting specific types of crops.

If re-elected, Hokama said that he will continue to monitor the county’s pocketbook, which includes listening to what the community wants and paying close attention to what programs are and are not required by the County Charter. With the county in a good economic position, it is able to pay for emergencies, such as the Sept. 13 floods in Iao Valley. Also, the county is in good shape with unfunded pension and retirement health care liabilities for public sector employees, which cannot be said for the other counties and the state.

“I’ve made it my position, and I stated it often enough, I always tell people, nothing is free. Somebody is paying the bill,” said Hokama, who is the council’s Budget and Finance Committee chairman.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

Riki Hokama*

Age: 63

Birthplace: Kauai

Residence: Lanai City

Occupation: County Council member, current term since 2013

Politicial experience: Delegate to Hawaii State Constitutional Convention in 1978; Maui County Council 1999-2008; National Association of Counties, president, 2014-15

Education: Bachelor of Arts degree, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Community service: Lanai Community Plan Advisory Committee, county Solid Waste Advisory Committee, state Community Services Commission and state Department of Transportation Harbors Task Force 2010 Update

Family: Single

Gabe Johnson

Age: 43

Birthplace: Miami

Occupation: Invasive species technician

Work experience: Pulama Lana’i, Expeditions ferry, Stables at Koele

Community service: Lanai Heritage Subsistence Fishing Practices, member, 2014-present; Maui County commissioner (Lanai representative), Americans with Disabilities Act, 2014-16

Family: Single, one daughter

* incumbent