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Maui County Council officially takes office

WAILUKU — Featuring several new faces and a majority of women for the first time, the Maui County Council officially took office on Wednesday.

“I’m so excited, it’s really hard to find the words,” said Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, the youngest member of the council at 35. “There’s such a good energy right now, and I’m going to do my best to keep up that excitement and that positive energy and restore that hope and faith back in our county council.”

The council members are: Riki Hokama (Lanai), Tasha Kama (Kahului), Kelly King (South Maui), Alice Lee (Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu), Mike Molina (Makawao-Haiku-Paia), Tamara Paltin (West Maui), Rawlins-Fernandez (Molokai), Shane Sinenci (East Maui) and Yuki Lei Sugimura (Upcountry).

King and Sugimura are returning for their second term, while Hokama will serve his fifth consecutive term. Lee and Molina are former council members, while Kama, Paltin, Rawlins-Fernandez and Sinenci are all political newcomers.

Keynote speaker Lt. Gov. Josh Green said that council members “weren’t just chosen for a single skill,” pointing to their experience as community organizers, housing experts, teachers, first responders and nonprofit champions. He added that they had a unique opportunity to directly impact people’s lives.

“It’s very personal to be elected as a council member or mayor,” Green said. “More personal than, I think, any other office in our state because you’ll truly know your constituents and they will know you. That doesn’t mean governors and lieutenant governors and senators don’t know our constituents, but we don’t have the same luxury of being embedded in the community day in and day out.”

Green said that council members would “spar with one another” but encouraged them to find common ground.

“You’ve won, so now don’t compete with one another. You don’t need to,” Green said. “The people need you so much. . . . Probably the most important thing to remember when conflicts do get personal, and I assure you they will, and differences of opinions boil over, remember it is far better to blame the Legislature and the governor.”

Molina said afterwards that he thought “we’ll have a very dynamic council.”

“It feels great to be back on the council,” he said. “I have a whole new different perspective, and I’m really excited to be working with my colleagues. I’m very optimistic that we’ll get a lot of good things done for our community.”

Molina said affordable housing would “certainly be at the top of his list” in addition to improvements for roads and water systems.

When asked what her priorities would be, Rawlins-Fernandez said with a laugh that “there’s so many” and that she already has an ongoing list.

“There are some charter amendments that I would like to make,” she said. “I would like to ensure that our budget goes to the biggest need. I would like to finally get the professional manager issue on our ballot next year.”

Council members also expressed optimism in working with newly elected Mayor Mike Victorino. Sugimura said she was “very encouraged” by Victorino’s emphasis on collaboration, “because we certainly will need him to move the county forward.”

“We’ve got to work together with the ninth floor, and I know that one of his biggies . . . was housing, and I totally want to hear what his recommendations are for how to move that problem forward and solve it, as well as how it impacts the homeless,” she said.

Sugimura said her priorities included housing and agriculture. She hoped the county could partner with housing developers through the recently passed Community Facilities District policy, which would help cover the infrastructure costs that create roadblocks for housing. She also wanted to address the challenges of local farmers and to streamline some of the county processes they have to go through.

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