Mayoral candidates give preview of administrations

Elle Cochran • Turning activism into a career of public service

In the lead-up to the Nov. 6 Election Day showdown, mayoral candidates Elle Cochran and Mike Victorino have dished on issues ranging from housing to agriculture to tourism and the economy.

Neither are strangers to county government — Cochran has held the West Maui residency seat on the Maui County Council since 2011, and Victorino held the Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu residency seat from 2007 to 2016.

But what would a Cochran or Victorino administration look like? The two candidates sat down with The Maui News to talk about their practical plans in office, from the first 100 days to their budget concerns to the proposals they would float.

First 100 Days

Whoever is elected in November will experience a mayoral first — choosing department directors that need to be approved by the council. This change occurred with the passage of a charter amendment in the last election.

Mike Victorino • Working hard to lift himself from humble beginnings

Both Cochran and Victorino have said that they would create committees to vet applications.

Victorino said his seven-member committee of community leaders, business people and attorneys would select the top two candidates for each department, then he would choose the best candidate for council review.

“Even before I start my first 100 days, the first 60 days right after the election is really setting up the administration,” Victorino said. “Once the year starts, then making sure my directors get approved, formulating the budget for the upcoming fiscal year . . . also go to council and have proposals on building housing for our workforce.”

Victorino said one of his top priorities early on would be looking into housing projects that have been approved but have yet to be completed. He’d like to see some of those projects pace,” Victorino said. “We’re going to hit the road running. We don’t want to be waiting.”

If elected, Cochran said her first steps would be “just getting a status, basically, of every department.”

Elle Cochran looks at the election returns on primary election night at Akaku Maui Community Media headquarters in Kahului. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

“I want to get into our departments and just kind of vet through where they’re at, what’s been successful, what hasn’t, things that I don’t know from being a council member,” Cochran said.

She said there are programs she’d like to see continued, such as the Made in Maui County Festival, and others that she’d like to initiate, such as curbside recycling.

“I think it’s important to know what programs are in place and try and see if that’s something that needs to carry through,” Cochran said. “I know a lot about our departments via the budget. . . . I’m going to jump in and see where are we really at.”

When it comes to choosing directors, Cochran said she plans to choose the best candidates from her hiring committee but will also make sure the council sees the full slate of applicants so they understand her decisions. She also said an early priority will be looking into the open or soon-to-expire seats on boards and commissions and getting people to apply.

“Come Nov. 6, it’s like full speed ahead,” Cochran said.

Mike Victorino (right) speaks to supporters alongside Maui County Council Chairman Mike White on primary election night Aug. 11. The gathering was held at the Local Union 1186 IBEW headquarters in Wailuku. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Building a Budget

One of the earliest and most exhaustive tasks for the new mayor will be compiling a budget. In March, Mayor Alan Arakawa proposed an $820 million budget that the council later pared down to $758.3 million. While the fiscal aggressiveness of a Cochran or Victorino budget is yet to be determined, both believe the county could shift some of its funding priorities.

Cochran believes there’s plenty of money to go around; she just thinks the county needs to do a better job of managing it.

“I know a lot of things in this current budget should not have been budgeted,” she said. “Those millions could be going to more social service programs. Those things can go to the eradication of invasives, protection of our watersheds. . . . Affordable housing fund, I wanted to beef that up.”

Cochran said she hoped to not raise taxes and planned to look into the formula used to assess land and real property taxes and how those rates are justified.

One place she would consider cutting funds from is the Department of Environmental Management, which has requested funds for projects that she believed were unnecessary, such as the $6.5 million grit system replacement for the Kihei Wastewater Reclamation Facility.

“We just take it for granted that the departments know what they’re asking for and that they need what they ask,” she said. “Lo and behold, there’s some huge projects that they don’t literally need. And we’re funding it. So how much more is happening? I don’t know. I just want to audit every department from A to Z.”

Cochran said she wants to see more accountability for the funds the council allocates to the departments. She floated the idea of a county website where people could see how much each department received and track the projects or equipment that the department purchased or completed with those funds.

Victorino also foresees his budget involving “minimum or as little as possible” increases to fees and taxes.

“We have had and continue to have a natural inflationary growth within our real property tax because values have continued to go up,” he said. “Real property tax I hope not to have to raise at all and to streamline and cut back in departments or in areas, and also reallocate money where I think priorities could be shifted.”

Victorino said any proposed staff positions “would have to be really justified by the department.” He plans to examine redundancies in county functions and advocates for automation “wherever and whenever we can.” He didn’t want to say yet what areas or departments he might cut or increase funding to, explaining that “I don’t want to get anybody excited,” but he said that housing would be a top spending priority, as well as emergency services.

Enforcement also would be a concern, particularly if voters pass the charter amendment to increase fines for illegal short-term rentals to $20,000. Victorino said he would ask the council for incentives, such as real property tax exemptions, to turn homes into long-term rentals.

The bottom line for Victorino is that funds be spent in ways that help departments become better centers of customer service for the general public.

“Our government will be one of customer service . . . taking care of our people and treating them with respect,” he said.

Storms and Disasters

In August and September, Maui County weathered an unexpected spate of hurricanes, flooding and brush fires.

Cochran, whose home district of West Maui was hit particularly hard, said that “people felt left in the dark” during the recent storms. Instead of having people scan radio channels searching for the latest update, Cochran said she wanted people to have a dedicated radio station that they could tune into. She also suggested having Civil Air Patrol flying to remote areas to announce alerts before storms.

Cochran also wanted to ensure every district has adequate storage places for Red Cross materials. She believed the Red Cross “is underappreciated” and would be open to putting funding in the county budget to help the agency out.

Cochran also complained that it took county officials several days to hold meetings and visit impacted areas during the most recent storms. She believed the administration needs to be more responsive, giving places like Honokohau or Iao equal priority and timely support in the wake of storms.

Victorino, meanwhile, said he planned to sit down with the Maui Emergency Management Agency to look at major incidents over the last couple of years. They would evaluate whether the equipment and manpower the county positioned in certain areas were adequate, particularly the places most prone to being cut off during storms.

“I would leave it to the experts,” he said. “I would be sitting down with all of them when I get into office and say, ‘Tell me what went well, tell me what went OK and tell me what went wrong so that we can be better prepared the next time.’ ”

Victorino said the county needs to help remote communities better prepare for natural disasters and perhaps consider purchasing equipment for first responders, such as smaller trucks, that could better access these areas.

He also advocated preventative measures, such as avoiding building in low-lying areas and regularly maintaining streams.

“We need to clean out streams, make sure the river mouths are clean so water or debris doesn’t come down and back up,” he said. “It’s a continual problem that we got to continue to work at. Maybe having better maintenance of drains and river mouths and even up along the river.”

Bills and Proposals

While the council makes the laws, the Mayor’s Office also can send bills the council’s way, which the legislatively experienced Cochran and Victorino could do as mayor.

Victorino said he has about two dozen bills in the works should he be elected. He didn’t want to get into specifics yet but said some of the general ideas include building more modular wastewater plants so that the county doesn’t have to rely on one large facility in Central Maui. He described modular plants as smaller facilities that are built as needed in growing communities.

“If you have modular plants very close to the housing and living and commercial entities that it serves, then you have a lot less chance of a break or major disaster because its closer proximity,” Victorino said.

Other proposals include fostering “consciously respectful, smart growth,” which Victorino described as concentrating units within certain areas, building “up instead of out,” and creating pedestrian- and bike-friendly neighborhoods close to public transportation. He also hoped to send proposals to the council that could involve buying or swapping county lands to encourage growing sustainable food crops.

“Whether they’re organic or traditional, it doesn’t make a difference to me,” Victorino said. “We need to continue to have a solid, sustainable food supply and become less dependent on the outside.”

Cochran said one project she might propose as mayor is to create a green-waste facility in West Maui.

“All of that gets trucked over the pali to come over here to the Central Maui Landfill,” Cochran said. “We could alleviate all those trucks hauling that stuff over, keep it in West Maui, grind it up in West Maui, use it in West Maui.”

She’s also interested in looking at the county’s open land and how it can be utilized for growing food as well as creating “open transit corridors,” such as a road from South Maui to Upcountry.

Cochran said she also wants to help the administration “get the hammer behind the enforcement angle,” particularly in the area of short-term rentals. The county recently contracted a Colorado company, LODGINGRevs, to sniff out illegal rentals online, and the Planning Department made some emergency hires, but Cochran said she’d be open to other limited term staff if “we just needed extra bodies to get through the paperwork.”

“That has been one of my pledges during this campaign, to really vet through and get down on these illegal short-term rentals,” she said.

MONDAY: Profiles of the candidates.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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Elle Cochran

Age: 53

Birthplace: Maui

Residence: Lahaina/Honolua

Occupation: County Council member (since 2011); owner, Maui Surfboards

Education: GED

Community service: Na Kia’i o Waine’e member (2013-present); board member Waiola Church (2009-2010 and 2015-present)

Family: Married

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Mike Victorino

Age: 66

Birthplace: Hilo

Residence: Wailuku

Occupation: Insurance, Mutual Underwriters Corp.

Political experience: Maui County Council member, 2007-2016

Education: Studied business management at Hawaii Community College and Hilo College

Community service: Ka Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Shelter, vice president (2013-2015); Knights of Columbus, state deputy (2012-2014 and 2018) and supreme warden (2016-2017); Maui Family Support Services, president and board of directors (2014-2017); General Insurance Agents of Maui, president, 2012-present

Family: Married, two adult sons

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of stories examining the key Maui County races in the Nov. 6 general election. Today’s feature focuses on the candidates in the race for mayor and how their administrations might look. The election stories will run periodically through Nov. 4. The Maui News election guide will be published next Sunday.