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Council Chair Kelly King to step down; Alice Lee tabbed to takeover

Her resignation comes on the heels of reports of dissatisfaction with her leadership

Council Member Kelly King announces her resignation as chairwoman of the Maui County Council as Council Member Alice Lee, who has been tapped as new chairwoman, looks on Friday at the Kalana O Maui building in Wailuku. -- The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

WAILUKU — Council Member Kelly King said Friday that she will step down as chairwoman of the council to lead a new committee on climate change and to spend more time with family amid reports of dissatisfaction with her leadership.

“I’m excited to step down from the chairmanship to take over that committee because it’s near and dear to my heart, and I’ve been already working on many of those issues. . . . I’m excited about that,” King said following a news conference on another matter at Kalana O Maui on Friday afternoon. “I also want to say it’s been an honor to lead the County Council this past year.”

During Friday’s meeting, the council approved a resolution proposed by King that acknowledges a climate emergency and commits to an immediate transition and emergency mobilization to restore a safe climate. That is the basis for the committee she will lead.

Council Member Alice Lee has “stepped up” to be chairwoman, King said.

King remains chairwoman until at least a council special meeting at 1:30 p.m. Friday in Council Chambers.

Council Member Kelly King shares a moment with freshman Council Member Shane Sinenci, who called her a mentor, after the announcement of her resignation as chair on Friday afternoon. -- The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

A change in leadership midway through a council term is unprecedented, according to longtime politicians and members of the media.

“I don’t believe this has ever happened before — not in the middle of a term,” said former Mayor Alan Arakawa, who has served three terms as mayor and three terms as council member.

About six years ago, then-council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa was ousted at the end of a term between elections, he said. That was different from King’s midterm resignation.

When asked in an interview following her announcement if council members were dissatisfied with her leadership, King said: “There’s been a lot of issues from day one, there is always the jealousies, the people who wanted the position, people who are picking on every little thing just trying to make a point, but bottom line is we had an amazing year, we got a lot of stuff done.”

However, those with direct knowledge of the situation, who did not want to be identified, said King created a difficult working environment that drove qualified people away and created “strained relationships” with Office of Council Services staff.

Council Member Tamara Paltin (in hat) adds a festive flavor to the County Council meeting Friday. Also shown in the photo (clockwise from the front) are council members Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Riki Hokama, Yuki Lei Sugimura and Tasha Kama. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The “breaking point” that led council members to seek leadership alternatives were the resignations of County Clerk Josiah Nishita and Deputy County Clerk Maggie Clark.

Nishita was named deputy managing director in Mayor Michael Victorino’s administration in an announcement made Monday. He remains in his clerk position until sometime next year to help with the transition.

With the first ever all-mail election only eight months away, the council will be scrambling to find qualified professionals to fill the Office of the County Clerk positions.

“That was the breaking point that caused council to consider what changes are needed to move forward,” said a person with knowledge of the situation, who declined to be identified. “Had it not been a resignation, it would have been a different outcome.”

King’s first year as chairwoman did have its controversies.

Maui County Council Chairwoman Kelly King runs Friday’s meeting before announcing that she was stepping down from the position later in the day. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

In August, veteran Council Member Riki Hokama took issue with King’s decision to remove a more than 45-year-old tapestry that had hung in the Council Chambers since 1972 and replace it with the county seal.

The tapestry, commissioned by the county and created by world-renowned weaver and Hawaii native, the late Alice Kagawa Parrott, was removed “without a clear cause or reason and without an opportunity for public input,” Hokama said.

King said there were concerns over the cleanliness of the tapestry and mentioned support to remove the tapestry by new council members. She said she was not required to get approval from other members to remove it.

In the same month, Kihei resident Madge Schaefer filed a complaint with the county Board of Ethics about King engaging in council discussions on a proposed biodiesel fuel tax. King is vice president and co-founder of Pacific Biodiesel.

King spoke in detail about her biofuel production business and the impact of a proposed 12 cent a gallon tax on biodiesel during council discussions in April. She abstained from voting on the tax proposal.

The Board of Ethics in August advised King to avoid discussing matters in council from which she has abstained from voting because of potential conflicts of interest and ethics issues.

And the Maui News in November reported that King allowed council members and executive assistants to stay at the Wailea Beach Resort — Marriott Maui for the Hawaii State Association of Counties Conference on the county dime. She apparently also sought a reimbursement for her hotel stay, while later claiming the filing was a staffer’s mistake.

King said during an interview Friday that she “has no regrets.”

Normally becoming the chairperson takes the lawmaker away from “doing all the legislation, all the projects and the resolutions you normally do,” she said. “But we didn’t stop. We have just been doing double duty.”

King said she wanted to spend time with her children and two grandchildren in Hilo and that prior to becoming chairwoman, she did not have anxiety or high blood pressure, which she now has.

She also lost her father, Jay Takaya, 88, who died Dec. 4 in Santa Barbara, Calif.

At the news conference, Lee thanked King for “all you’ve done for us.” Lee said she has a different style of leadership from King, whom she called a “task master.”

“I see myself as a kinder, gentler, slave driver,” she said to laughs.

Lee, who served as chairwoman in 1995 during an earlier run in the council, said she is looking forward to working with the members, who are “very unique” and touted the composition as “an excellent combination of youth and age, of energy and wisdom.”

“I’m pretty excited about continuing our work together,” she said. “We’ve come together as a very productive group. We have lively discussions, we have lively disagreements but just as lively are the times where we work very hard together to produce good things.”

Lee said the council’s priorities will remain tax reform, affordable housing and homelessness, “as well as working on the climate change emergency.”

Committees mostly will remain the same, she said. However, two committees will be combined to form King’s new committee, and Lee will step down from the water and infrastructure panel. Proposals for committee restructuring will be heard at Friday’s meeting.

Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said she will remain at her post.

All council members were contacted for comment. They, along with Victorino, all spoke favorably about the change and thanked King for her service.

In an email, Victorino said he looked forward to working with the new council leadership.

“We have much work to do on pressing issues, such as developing attainable housing and making improvements to our infrastructure,” he said. “I’m excited to work collaboratively with council members to make progress toward our shared goals for the people of Maui County.”

Council Member Shane Sinenci said: “I told her (King) she’s been a great mentor for me as a freshman. We have the same values for the environment, aloha aina values. I’m happy she’s creating the climate change committee.”

King led a faction with four first-time council members. She is only in her second term.

Council Member Mike Molina said some members were surprised by the resignation, but they respect King’s decision.

“Like everyone else, I was surprised. But this is the chair’s decision, and I respect her decision,” he said. “I do believe she will continue to serve the community well.”

In an email, Rawlins-Fernandez said: “I understand that this restructuring, which was a decision made together, and not by any one individual, may be surprising to the community. However, this council works very well together and always has the best interests of the community at heart.”

She said King is the right fit for the new committee, and hopefully, this will continue the last term’s momentum “toward the creation of a Climate Change and Resiliency department or division.”

As for how this decision will affect her political future and if it will deter her from seeking reelection, King said, “I don’t think so.”

“I probably have more time to run,” she said. “If I can get some of my life back with this move and still run, that will be helpful.”

King’s residency seat is South Maui. She was been a council member since 2017 after winning the 2016 election against incumbent Don Couch.

Alice Lee was a County Council member from 1989 to 1998 and director of the county Department of Housing and Human Concerns from 1998 to 2006. She was elected again to the council in 2018.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com and Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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