After election shakeup, dust begins to settle for new council
Council members-elect downplay 5-4 split between ‘Ohana-endorsed and ‘establishment’ candidates
Six new council members, including four freshmen, and a new “perceived” 5-4 majority may spur major changes when business begins in January at the County Council.
South Maui Council Member Kelly King appears to be a front-runner for chairwoman in the new majority, though members declined Wednesday to view the council as being divided between ‘Ohana Coalition-backed candidates and so-called “establishment” members.
When the dust settled after Tuesday’s general election, only Council Members Riki Hokama (Lanai), Kelly King (South Maui) and Yuki Lei Sugimura (Upcountry) managed to hold onto their seats. Former longtime Council Members Alice Lee and Mike Molina claimed Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu and Makawao-Haiku-Paia seats, respectively.
First-time winners Shane Sinenci of East Maui, Tamara Paltin of West Maui, Natalie “Tasha” Kama of Kahului and Keani Rawlins-Fernandez of Molokai rounded out the nine-member council.
Leadership, committee and staff positions are all up for grabs in this new council with both Council Chairman Mike White and Vice Chairman Bob Carroll retiring at the end of the year. White had served as chairman since 2015.
Members said they were open to hearing from any candidate seeking the top job, though, King has already “expressed desire to be considered for chair,” Hokama said. He added that he hopes to retain his role overseeing the county’s budget and finances.
King, Kama and Sinenci could not be immediately reached Wednesday.
“If you want to talk about this side or that side, I believe they can organize with their so-called five votes” and elect King, Hokama said. “I think members are looking at other interests and committee assignments too, so being a senior member I’m still going to tell them my strength is in the financial and budget area.”
Entering his fifth two-year consecutive term, Hokama has the most council experience. He previously served from 1999 to 2008. Lee and Molina have both served for 10 years previously. The Lanai council member said he is hopeful to work with newer members to identify “our strengths and see how we can share responsibilities.”
“I look forward to this new vibrant energy they’ll be bringing with them,” he said. “I’ll be interested in what their priorities are and interests, and that they come with good council action.”
“This is my last term,” he continued. “I plan to use it as best as I can to share my experience and make sure when I leave the county it is in the best position possible from the day I started.”
Newcomers Paltin and Rawlins-Fernandez also look forward to starting their council terms in January, but they downplayed the division between members.
Paltin said she believed that members of the former majority did not always make “judgments based on logical reasons.” While she and Rawlins-Fernandez were both endorsed by the coalition, Paltin said she’d like to see that the new majority does not follow the same practices.
“Even with it swung the other way, I hope that it doesn’t go like that,” Paltin said. “I hope that everybody makes the decision that they feel is right, not just because of four other people they are lumped together with. But most of all, I hope that we’re fair. To me, that is the most important thing. People should vote their conscience and try to act fair.”
Paltin said she did not think issues over the majority would affect major topics such as affordable housing and homelessness, which “all nine of us cared about.” While she was disappointed with some of the election losses Tuesday, she was overall satisfied with the makeup of the new council.
“I don’t feel like there was anyone who was elected I’m going to dread going to work with, so that’s a happy thing for me,” she said. “I hope that everyone is sincere about wanting Maui County to do well.”
Paltin did not disclose her preference for chairman or chairwoman, but she said that she likes working with King and has supported her efforts. She said she plans to keep an open mind and do as much research as possible before electing members to positions.
“I’d like to hear her specifics as to what she wants to accomplish and her plans,” Paltin said of King. “I think it is a pretty big responsibility.”
Rawlins-Fernandez said she would support King as chairwoman and believes her to be “very qualified to run meetings.”
“Her meetings were always done professionally and efficiently,” she said. “It’s something I always appreciated, and I think she did her best to make sure everyone felt respected and heard.”
Rawlins-Fernandez discouraged the “perception of having sides” and said she plans to personally address the issue with other members. She said she also believes the current committee structure should be changed and hopes to chair a committee involving policy work due to her being the only council member with a law degree.
“I feel with our diverse backgrounds and work experience, we bring voices that are reflective of the communities we come from,” she said. “I think we will have our own individual perspectives on issues and how we go forward on different proposed bills.”
Molina said he has not made any commitments on the top council leadership position and plans to network with each member heading into the new year. He said he would be open to lead any committee, including the Budget and Finance Committee.
“The biggest thing for me right now is touching bases with everyone and seeing where we agree and to be respectful to everyone,” he said. “It was difficult seeing the trials and tribulations they’ve gone through, but we need to move on and work together.”
Lee said she had not spoken to the newly elected members yet about chairmanship or committees, but she was happy to share her knowledge and experience on the history, duties and responsibilities of various committees. Lee formerly served as chairwoman of the Budget and Housing and Human Services committees.
She also declined to view the council as being divided.
“I see the newly elected council members as a majority of nine,” she said.
Sugimura, who finished her first term on the council, said she hopes to see more unity in her second term. She recalled the division amongst members that began after the 2016 election, when it took 13 1/2 hours to re-elect White as chairman.
“I don’t want to ever see that repeat itself,” she said.
Sugimura also did not reveal her position on council leadership, but she said she believes the new leader needs to “understand processes and procedures and have a way of bringing the council to work together.”
She said she would like to continue her role overseeing the council’s Policy, Economic Development and Agriculture Committee, but she said she’s open to suggestions from other members.
“We’re all in the same canoe, and we need to paddle together for the community,” she said.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.