Rawlins-Fernandez to lead council budget panel

Other committee assignments selected

Freshman Maui County Council Member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez shares a moment in Council Chambers with an audience member on Friday. She will lead the powerful Economic Development and Budget Committee. Behind her in the photo is fellow freshman Council Member Tamara Paltin. -- The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

WAILUKU — Maui County Council freshman member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez took a key position Friday as chairwoman of the Economic Development and Budget Committee, which handles the nitty-gritty aspects of the county budget for the council.

She takes over the committee that had been chaired by the council’s most senior member, Riki Hokama.

Rawlins-Fernandez’s appointment was part of Friday’s organizational meeting, at which the council settled on chairs, co-chairs, members and duties of its standing committees in its second meeting of the year.

Members shared vocally on the floor the committees they would like to lead and on which committees they would like to sit. After about an hour recess, new council Chairwoman Kelly King, who was elected in the first council meeting on Jan. 2, came back with proposed committee assignments.

While top leadership posts did not change from King’s recommendations after voting, there were some changes to committee memberships and vice chair posts. Alice Lee declined King’s appointment to become the vice chairwoman of the Economic Development and Budget Committee. King ended up taking that position, as suggested by Lee.

Chair assignments for other committees:

• Affordable Housing Committee, Tasha Kama

• Environmental, Agricultural and Cultural Preservation Committee, Shane Sinenci

• Governance, Ethics and Transparency Committee, Michael Molina

• Healthy Families and Communities Committee, Hokama

• Multimodal Transportation Committee, Yuki Lei Sugimura

• Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee, Tamara Paltin

• Water and Infrastructure Committee, Lee

Molina’s nine-member committee will be vetting Mayor Michael Victorino’s director appointments, the first time the council will have an opportunity to confirm all department directors. That process could begin the week of Jan. 20, Molina said.

His committee also will confirm boards and commission appointments and handle legal affairs, Molina said.

In the past decade, no leader of the budget committee has been a first-year member. Former chairs of the challenging committee that vets the mayor’s budget and scrutinizes department spending have included former Council Chairmen Mike White and Dain Kane, along with Joe Pontanilla, who held the chair before having to leave the council due to term limits.

Lee also is a former budget committee chairwoman.

Rawlins-Fernandez, who is the council vice chairwoman, asked to be budget chairwoman. She pointed out that many other former budget leaders, even council veterans, did not have any experience managing a $700 million to $800 million county budget.

She noted that she has a master’s degree in business administration and has served on boards of organizations that manage several millions of dollars of programs. She also has worked in former Council Member Elle Cochran’s office and became familiar with the county budget process.

“I’m not a budget expert,” she said, adding that “I’m committed to working hard and work on (being) collaborative to everyone.

“I will not do it alone anyway. I will have a committee and a team.”

Rawlins-Fernandez pledged a more open budget process and planned to purchase software to allow the public to track the budget.

During his time to advocate for a position, Hokama, the former budget chairman, did not ask to be chairman of the budget committee or any committee. He said he can appreciate the new council members that have been chosen by the electorate and have the majority.

But he extolled his experience as a past president of the National Association of Counties and that he has met with and given talks to international governments and officials.

With decades on the council, he said he initially came in when the county’s finances were “horrible,” but has since turned them around.

“For me, I’m happy to use my experience, my knowledge to assist this council to move forward,” said Hokama.

In the end, Hokama ended up chairing the Healthy Families and Communities Committee, one that no one had asked to chair.

There was testimony on both sides Friday as to who would be best to take the leadership role of the budget committee.

Molokai activist Walter Ritte, who testified by phone, supported Rawlins-Fernandez, calling her a person with “strong and caring values” for the people and the environment, as well as a record of helping those in need.

He also pointed to her educational background and called her the “perfect person” to chair the budget committee.

Former county Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen urged the council to place someone with experience in the position, but she did not offer any names.

Rasmussen noted that the county budget is “three-fourths of a billion.”

“You do not put a freshman council member to run that position. . . . I urge you to give the budget committee chairmanship to someone who has experience in the position before,” she said.

Rasmussen compared it to pulling someone from the sidewalk to instantly become a firefighter and put out a fire right away.

“Not only would you be putting the person at risk, you could be putting the community at risk,” she said.

She asked that politics be put aside in the decision making.

Sugimura made a motion for Lee to become budget chairwoman. Lee was budget chairwoman and council chairwoman during her initial time on the council from 1989 to 1998. Lee requested to become chairwoman of the committee.

Kama floated the idea of co-chairs for the budget committee. But with discussion dragging on, Lee suggested that Sugimura’s nomination be taken back.

Lee said that for a large committee having two chairs can be complicated. It could involve one chair trying to set the agenda but having to continuously check in with the other chair.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.