From the couch to the campaign trail, Lee challenges Atay
Incumbent mum on his record, issues
On Jan. 2, 2017, Alice Lee was watching TV in her living room, waiting for the 10 o’clock news. Then, a text message appeared on her cellphone.
It said: “Watch Akaku. Watch the council proceedings.”
So, the former five-term County Council member changed the channel and saw the spectacle of a portion of what would turn out to be a 13 1/2-hour battle for council leadership between longtime council members supporting Mike White as chairman and the freshly minted members of the ‘Ohana Coalition — Council Members Elle Cochran, Don Guzman, Kelly King and Alika Atay. Eventually, White emerged in what could be viewed in hindsight as a Pyrrhic victory, leading some, like Mayor Alan Arakawa recently, to believe the county lawmaking body has become “the most dysfunctional council we’ve ever had.”
Back on her living room couch, Lee was in “disbelief.”
“I saw/heard cat calls from the audience, people calling out who they thought should be the council chair,” she said. “They became more unruly as the ‘Ohana Coalition members kept making motions for their members to become chair, even though they clearly did not have the requisite five votes. To me, they made a mockery of the process.”
As she watched, she received other text messages urging her to “do something about this.”
“Inexperience and incivility led to chaos and mass confusion,” she said last week in an interview at The Maui News.
She said she hoped the council members would settle down and work together to do the public’s business, but she questions whether that ever has reached “the point of full-fledged cooperation and corroboration.”
“The way they speak to one another is, to me, unacceptable,” she said, calling council members’ interactions “very disrespectful and not even cordial.”
“When you become a council member, you represent everyone,” said Lee, 70, of Wailuku. “And, you need to conduct yourself in a civil, professional and orderly way. That’s your job. You’re not there to sit around the campfire in a group therapy session, not there to air out laundry.”
Lee said she thinks council members have a lack of understanding on the basics of organizational conduct, like Robert’s Rules of Order.
“I’m running for one reason and one reason only, and that is to bring order and respect and collaboration back to the council,” she said. “If we had all three, we’re halfway to the goal line.”
And, “the idea is to find a common ground, look for new and fresh, workable ideas towards solutions and then go ahead and do that,” she said.
The Maui News invited Atay, 64, of Waihee, to do a sit-down or telephone interview as he completes his freshman term and seeks re-election to the council’s Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu residency seat. On Wednesday, he declined in an emailed message.
It said: “Given the defamatory statements The Maui News continues to print, I will be passing on any sit down or telephone interview with you. However, if you would like to write a fair story on the election contest and would like to understand and/or integrate my platform and answers, then please do email them today.”
The Maui News declined to submit emailed questions to Atay, as it did with his legislative and policy analyst, Trinette Furtado, a candidate for the council’s Makawao-Haiku-Paia residency seat. After a request for emailed questions was refused, Furtado was interviewed by phone for a feature story on her race against former Council Member Mike Molina.
The Maui News interviewed all other candidates for council by phone or in person.
Atay did not specify what “defamatory statements” he was referring to, but The Maui News has been covering at least three controversies that have overshadowed his campaign.
One has been the cloud that hangs over Atay from the actions and behavior of his executive assistant Brian Bardellini. The aide was barred from the seventh floor of the county building — where there are the offices of Council Services and the County Clerk — because of violations of the county workplace violence policy.
Bardellini also was awarded a $100,000 county grant for events honoring Queen Ka’ahumanu’s 250th birthday in March. A council committee has been reviewing the matter, and last month the Office of Economic Development began accepting invoices from unpaid vendors who provided goods and services for events. Also last month, the county terminated the contract award to Bardellini and withheld $46,000 in payments because of reports of unpaid vendors from funds already disbursed.
Another matter was the state Campaign Spending Commission’s levy of a $2,700 fine on the Atay campaign and the candidate for violating campaign spending laws, including two counts of unauthorized handling of campaign funds.
The commission found that Atay and Bardellini wrote checks from the campaign account when Hawaii law permits only the campaign’s treasurer and deputy treasurer to receive contributions or incur expenditures of campaign funds.
And, the commission charged Atay with five counts of making false reports, noting inconsistencies between bank records and reports filed by Atay with the commission.
On Friday, commission general counsel Gary Kam said there still was no response from Atay to the commission’s complaints. Commission officials have said Atay will have to clear his complaints to take office if he wins the race.
And last month, Mayor Arakawa filed two complaints against Atay with the county Board of Ethics. One was for listing his council office on a political ad, and the other was for sending a mass email to county employees that Arakawa called “clearly a political attack.”
The campaign ad that appeared in the Sept. 30 Maui Fair tabloid in The Maui News featured Atay’s County Council address, and not his campaign address. The County Charter requires that election activities be separate from a County Council member’s official government duties. Confusion over the mailing address in the ad, which was approved by Atay’s campaign prior to publication, resulted in part from communications with The Maui News Advertising Department from Atay’s council email address.
Atay has never agreed to answer — in person or by phone — The Maui News’ questions about these matters, always insisting on responding to emailed questions. Emails from Atay and Bardellini to Maui News staff writer Chris Sugidono have been written exactly the same way, including, in at least one instance, “OFF THE RECORD.”
In 2014, Atay came to the forefront publicly as a leader in the SHAKA (Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina) Movement. SHAKA led the effort to gather enough petition signatures to get an initiative for a moratorium on the farming of genetically modified organisms on the 2014 general election ballot. After passage by a slim margin, the measure was overturned in June 2015 by U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway, who called it “invalid and unenforceable.”
In 2016, Atay was among five candidates for the Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu residency seat vacated by Council Member Mike Victorino, who termed out and is currently a candidate for mayor. With his campaign slogan of ” ‘Nuff Already,” Atay was an anti-establishment candidate and a breath of fresh air for some voters tired of what they viewed as the County Council’s developer- and big business-friendly majority, kept in office with well-financed campaigns.
One Maui News letter writer in 2016 referred to Atay as being “humble, knowledgeable, with fresh ideas and truly caring for our island.” He was seen as a candidate who’d protect natural resources, safe drinking water and support the development of small-scale farming.
In the August 2016 primary, Atay finished second with 6,354 votes, or 23.6 percent, behind former Council Member Dain Kane and ahead of county Managing Director Keith Regan. In the November general election, Atay came from behind to defeat Kane with a late surge of about 2,300 votes from Haiku. The vote count was 23,322 votes, or 44 percent, for Atay and 22,513 ballots, or 42.5 percent, for Kane — a difference of 809 votes.
As a council member, Atay has chaired the Water Resources Committee.
On his campaign website, www.alikaatay.com/, Atay lists no legislative bills that he authored or spearheaded toward passage as ordinances. Instead, it’s largely aspirational, listing his beliefs and goals, such as “providing truly affordable homes for local family residents” and “increasing economic development in the areas of agriculture and the ‘green-collared’ job/career opportunities.” He also urges the community to continue “to embrace Maui values that keeps Maui No Ka Oi.”
The “beliefs” section of his campaign website cites four areas: government accountability and transparency; housing; agriculture; and “health of people.” Of those, two are largely state or federal government functions — agriculture and health.
A return to politics
As a council member from 1989 to 1998, Lee served as council chairwoman and chairwoman of the Budget and Housing and Human Concerns committees. She was known for her work on affordable housing, and she proposed that a private, nonprofit Affordable Housing Corp. be created to promote and develop affordable housing. Other nonprofits such as Na Hele O Maui, Habitat for Humanity and Lokahi Pacific filled that role, she said, adding that she supported providing county funding for all three organizations.
In 1998, Lee sought the Democratic Party nomination for Maui mayor. (The Mayor’s Office became nonpartisan in 2002.)
In the primary, Lee finished second and 90 votes behind then fellow Council Member James “Kimo” Apana in a four-candidate race. Apana took 7,882 votes, or 42.8 percent, and Lee had 7,792 votes, or 42.3 percent.
Under Mayors Apana and Arakawa, Lee went on to serve as director of the county Department of Housing and Human Concerns until 2006.
Since then, Lee has become a social services and housing advocate. And, beginning in 2013, she became president of the New Leaf Ranch, a nonprofit that provides dormitory housing and support for men emerging from incarceration and reintegrating into society.
In her interview last week with The Maui News, Lee said she thinks her experience as a council member and as a department director would be valuable on the County Council, but realistically, “I don’t think people care that much.”
Lee said she didn’t want to re-enter politics, but she felt compelled to because little has been accomplished by the current council.
The council needs a mix of members; some new with fresh ideas and others with experience. “Otherwise, you’ve got the blind leading the blind,” she said.
Lee considers herself independent.
“I can work with both sides,” she said. “I can work with the ‘Ohana Coalition if I have to, but I really want to work with people who have a bigger world view than GMOs, sunscreen and, you know, bugs on the rug. I want to go after the big ones — rental housing, for-sale housing, major traffic improvements. That’s where my mind is at. Those other guys are not there.”
Lee said she has seen little of Atay on the campaign trail, except for three or four forums recently.
“He did start late,” she said.
“I think that a lot of his alleged misdeeds, missteps have distracted from the issues,” she said. “I think the voters really didn’t have a chance to compare our positions on the issues because of all the controversies.”
Lee said she believes she’s more action-oriented than Atay.
“You can identify the same problems just so many times,” she said. “At some point, you have to stop talking about the problems and actually do something. Rhetoric is fine, but if there’s no implementation or action tangible results that follow, then you’ve pretty much taken up space. We all know what the problems are.
“The idea is to get down to the solutions and work together.”
Lee’s campaign website can be found at www.aliceleemaui.com.
According to a report submitted to the Campaign Spending Commission, Atay had $6,454.16 on hand before Jan. 1, and he added $19,292.20 in contributions from Jan. 1 through Oct. 22. That left him with a total of cash on hand of $25,746.36. His total expenditures were $18,458.61, leaving him with $7,287.75. Subtracting a $7,500 loan, he reported a deficit of $212.25.
Atay’s donors of $1,000 or more included self-employed musician Matthew Marshall of Haiku, $2,000; self-employed Sulara James of Kihei, $2,000; Aurora Investments consultant Jeffrey Bronfman of Santa Fe, N.M., $2,000; self-employed Kula resident Linda Love, $1,995 (advertisement); self-employed Kula resident Michael Williams, $1,995 (advertisement); salesman Michael Kapuniai of Kihei, $1,000; self-employed Realtor and Sustainable Action Fund for the Environment Chairman Mark Sheehan, $1,000; and Waikapu Country Town developer Mike Atherton, $1,000.
Lee showed taking in $54,035 in contributions and spending $45,011.54 in the reporting period. She was left with $9,023.46 cash on hand.
Donors of $1,250 or more included Kobayashi Group Chief Executive Officer Bert Kobayashi of Honolulu, $2,000; Steeltech Inc. President Valentine Peroff Jr. of Aiea, Oahu, $2,000; Arda Roc-Pac of Washington, D.C., $2,000; Local Union 1186 IBEW PAC fund of Honolulu, $2,000; Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters of Wailuku, $2,000; Coast Construction owner Kenneth Sakurai of Honolulu, $2,000; retired Grace Pacific executive David Hulihee of Honolulu, $2,000; and Kihei Gardens & Landscaping Co. LLP, $1,250.
Donors of $1,000 each to the Lee campaign were the United Public Workers Political Action Committee of Honolulu; the HI Operating Engineers Industry of Alameda, Calif.; Earl Stoner Construction & Real Estate President C. Earl Stoner; retired Kihei resident Sheralyne Leis; self-employed Realtor Mark Wang of Orlando, Fla.; Plumbing Contractors President Randal Hiraki of Honolulu; Foundations Hawaii owner Kevin Pena of Kapolei, Oahu; ILWU Local 142 HI Political Action Committee of Honolulu; retired Honolulu resident Mitchell Imanaka; and MTP Operating Co. LLC, doing business as Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu.
Lee defended her campaign contributions, saying that money is needed to be “realistic” about running a campaign.
Without money, “it’s impossible,” she said.
Lee said her donors “believe in me, that I can do the job.
“They’re in a sense investing in me that I will do a good job for the County of Maui,” she said. “I am not going to sell my county down the river for $2,000. Ever. I have been ostracized, criticized, you know, everything, almost burned at the stake for the positions that I’ve taken over the years. So, if you want to accuse me of being in the pocket of a developer, fine. That’s not my record. That’s not my record at all.”
When asked for instances in which she took stands against campaign donors, Lee said that, in the mid-1990s, she voted against the Genshiro Kawamoto project in Kihei that called for building thousands of homes next to what was then called the Wailea 670 project area. And, she said she voted against the extension of the Kahului Airport runway because she thought the growth of the visitor industry was outpacing Maui’s infrastructure.
“A lot of the unions did not appreciate my vote” on the runway extension, she said. And, she took a stand in voting against development at the Crook Estate in Makawao and against a 12-story Maui Beach Hotel. In both of those instances, she said, she thought the proposed developments would overwhelm surrounding areas.
“There have been a bunch of times when I have voted no on some of these issues, and I paid for it in the next election when I didn’t get support,” she said.
On the issues
On managing tourism, Lee said she thinks there should be a community plan drafted specifically for the visitor industry.
She suggested inviting representatives from the visitor industry and community to talk, identify problems and gain a consensus on tackling the top three.
“Let’s bite off what we can chew,” she said.
Traffic is her biggest infrastructure concern, and she said the most problematic areas are in Kihei, West Maui and Paia. And, she expressed support for an extension of Waiale Road in Waikapu that’s needed for development of the Waikapu Country Town project.
Lee said there are many competing community needs for infrastructure and other improvements.
“We need $300 million, and we have $50 million,” she said.
To make real progress, policymakers should consider measures such as a legalized lottery or legalized marijuana as ways to generate “huge, huge streams of revenue.”
On affordable housing, Lee said she’d like policymakers to consider having the county acquire empty big-box stores (such as Lowe’s and Sports Authority at the Maui Marketplace) and empty warehouses to quickly develop affordable rentals.
“The county should invest in buying these properties and converting them into affordable rentals,” she said. “They already have the zoning. They already have the structure, so you just have to build the interior. There’s a lot of parking because it’s a shopping center.”
Such opportunities for affordable rentals also should be explored Upcountry and in West and South Maui, she said.
“Let’s not do everything in Central Maui, but look at all the different areas with empty buildings and see if we can’t buy them,” she said. Or, the county could provide some incentive to the property owner to convert the space to affordable rentals.
“In a very short time, we could put together thousands of rental units,” Lee said.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.
Occupation: Maui County Council member since 2017; indigenous natural farming teacher and farm manager
Education: Kamehameha Schools, 1972; Hasting College, 1977
Community service: Farm Apprentice Mentoring Program natural farming mentor, 2015-16
Family: Married, three children (one deceased)
Occupation: Social services and housing advocate
Political experience: Maui County Council member, 1989-98; ran for mayor in 1998; director of the county Department of Housing and Human Concerns, 1998-2006
Education: St. Anthony School, Chaminade University, Bachelor of Arts degree in political science
Community Service: Hale Makua board of directors, 2008-16; Civil Service Commission, vice chairwoman, 2013-18; New Leaf Ranch Inc., president 2013- present
Family: Divorced, two children