Votes still to be counted in close race for council

Kelly King looked victorious over Don Couch in South Maui until trove of missing votes was discovered

Maui County Council candidate Kelly King gets a hug from Richard Abbett at Akaku after Tuesday evening’s first printout showed King in the lead for the South Maui residency seat. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Kihei businesswoman Kelly King appeared on the verge of upsetting incumbent Don Couch by a razor-thin margin in the general election late Tuesday, but with around 2,500 votes still to be counted, the fate of the South Maui residency race was still up in the air.

According to the third printout at 9:50 p.m., King had 21,319 votes, or 43.9 percent, over Couch’s 21,183 votes, or 43.6 percent — a gap of just 136 votes.

The Office of the County Clerk said Tuesday night that it was working to count the remaining ballots and wasn’t sure when it would be finished.

Couch, who was seeking his fourth term in office, said he hadn’t gotten any confirmation of King’s victory yet, but said he had already called to congratulate her.

“She ran a good race,” Couch said. “I offered to help her in transition, which generally doesn’t happen. I’d be happy to sit with her and tell her what issues our office has been working on. She said, ‘OK, we’ll get together.’ ”

Maui County Council Member Don Couch speaks with Makawao’s Roland Perreira outside Akaku Maui Community Media’s studios Tuesday. The South Maui incumbent was in a tight race with Kihei businesswoman Kelly King, who held a 136-vote lead over Couch late Tuesday night. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Multiple attempts to contact King were unsuccessful.

In an election where all council seats were contested for the first time in at least 20 years, six incumbents won their races, while the two seats vacated due to term limits — the Upcountry and Wailuku-Waikapu-Waihee residency seats —  were in question because of the uncounted ballots.

King, a first-time council candidate, held on to a lead that grew slimmer as the night wore on. At the first printout, which tallies absentee voting results, King led with 11,039 votes, or 45.5 percent, to Couch’s 10,408 votes, or 42.9 percent. But by the second printout at around 8 p.m., Couch had shaved his opponent’s lead to 1 percentage point. King had 13,929 votes, or 44.6 percent, while Couch came in with 13,602 votes, or 43.6 percent.

“We’re making progress,” Couch said shortly after the second printout was released. “We went from a gap of 630 votes to a gap of 300. Hopefully, we’ll continue that trend.”

Couch said he expected the race to be close, especially after the Aug. 13 primaries.

Maui County Council candidate Kelly King is interviewed Tuesday night by Akaku Maui Community Media senior producer Chivo Ching-Johnson. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“I knew from the primary results that I was behind already,” Couch said, explaining that his three opponents’ combined votes were greater than the number of votes he received.

In the primaries, Couch defeated King and two other candidates with 11,305 votes, or 41.9 percent. King had 8,439 votes, or 31.3 percent. King said at the time that the results were “exactly where we wanted to be.”

Between the primary and the general elections, Couch’s campaign was hit with questions when Haiku resident Sean Lester filed an ethics violation claim over Couch’s purchases of an affordable and a market-priced home over a three-month span in 2007.

Lester questioned how Couch could qualify for the $389,088 affordable unit at Kai Makani Beach Villas in Kihei while still managing to buy the $595,900 market-priced home in Waikapu Gardens. Couch said that when he and his wife originally signed up for the Kai Makani unit, their income was below 140 percent of median income, qualifying them as buyers.

The county Ethics Board eventually declined to investigate the complaint, saying the allegations were “vague” and exceeded the statute of limitations.

“I don’t think that had anything to do with (the election results),” Couch said. “There was a perception that I was pro-mega mall, and I never was.  . . .  I think that was the big misperception out there.”

Couch and King also clashed down the stretch as each questioned the other’s ability to govern in spite of personal ties. In an Oct. 30 Maui News story, King painted Couch’s friendly relationship with Mayor Alan Arakawa and former job in the administration as an example of the cronyism she wanted to see eliminated from government. Couch said he had operated independent of the mayor’s administration and could continue to do so.

In turn, Couch wondered whether King’s position as vice president of Pacific Biodiesel and the company’s disputes with the county might spill over into King’s council dealings with the administration. King said Couch was “trying to create something out of nothing.” She said Pacific Biodiesel left the Central Maui landfill not because of violations on the company’s part but because of the county’s delay in reviewing a permit for the company.

The California-born King, 56, came to Maui when she was 19 years old. In 1986, she and her husband Bob built their family home in Kihei and later founded Pacific Biodiesel. She was a member of the state Board of Education from 1994 to 1998.

The 60-year-old Couch, also California-born, came to Maui in 1990 and and has a background in the information technology business. He was the county’s deputy planning director before going on to serve three terms on the County Council.

If the results stand, Couch said it was too early to say what he planned to do in the future, or whether he would run for office again. He said he’d gotten a couple of offers in the IT field. He added that he wanted to wait until final results were out, but that he didn’t intend to challenge the results.

“The people have spoken. We’ll listen to what they have to say and move forward,” Couch said. “I’ve had a very interesting and good experience on the council, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Maybe if things work out I can do it again.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at