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Lee to lead council with public health and budget as priorities

Inauguration ceremony for 2021-23 term was held virtually Saturday

For the first time, the Maui County Council’s inauguration was held virtually Saturday. Members are (from upper left) Shane Sinenci, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Tamara Paltin, (middle row left) Mike Molina, Kelly King, Yuki Lei Sugimura, (bottom left) Tasha Kama, Alice Lee and Gabe Johnson. Maui County Council photo

Public health and safety, balancing the county budget and creating a county Department of Agriculture are some of the top issues the new Maui County Council will tackle this year, its leader said Sunday.

“Our plate is very full and I’m actually glad this is not an election year. We won’t be distracted by those kinds of things. We can hit the ground running and move as quickly as we can to solve some of these important issues,” said Chairwoman Alice Lee, who will lead during this 2021-23 term.

Lee was re-elected to head the nine-member council Saturday during an organizational meeting held virtually because of the pandemic. Lee, who holds the Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu residency seat, had served as chairwoman for a portion of her last term when then-chair Kelly King resigned to head up the new Climate Action and Resilience Committee in December of 2019.

The top two other leaders of the council remain the same as last term with Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who holds the Molokai residency seat, continuing as vice chairwoman and Tasha Kama, who holds the Kahului seat, remaining as presiding officer pro tempore. All top positions were confirmed by unanimous votes Saturday.

Lee said Sunday that the top priority will be the pandemic and keeping residents safe.

The keynote speaker during the Maui County Council’s virtual inauguration Saturday was Kihei Charter School alumna Sophia Davis who is studying biomedical engineering at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

For now the council and its committees will continue to hold meetings virtually rather in Council Chambers at the Kalana O Maui Building in Wailuku.

Lee sees this continuing until vaccines are given out and the surge of COVID-19 cases is under control.

“The numbers are getting very disturbing,” Lee said. “We need to manage those numbers and clearly we are going to clamp down on enforcing rules.”

She stressed that people need to really follow all rules with social distancing and wearing masks.

Another priority will be to ensure the county’s revenue base is balanced.

With the pandemic, local governments are all facing budgetary shortfalls. Lee expects that some capital improvement projects will need to be put off and some revisions may need to be made to some county tax rates that are able to be reduced.

“The fiscal security of the county is a major concern,” Lee said.

She added that the council will be getting a fuller picture of the county’s budget status when it is presented to them for review in March by Mayor Michael Victorino.

Rawlins-Fernandez, who will again chair the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee, said she anticipates conducting the lengthy budget sessions via interactive communication as was done in 2020.

“With the help of the administration, I’m excited to announce an upgraded accounting system and the incorporation of OpenGov to our budget processes, which will help increase transparency making important information, such as CARES funding expenditures, more easily accessible for the public,” she added.  

Lee said another priority will be for the council to set up the new Department of Agriculture that was approved by Charter Amendment by Maui County voters in November.

Lee said it is important to get the department structure going as food security and sustainability are important and should not wait.

Also at the organizational meeting, eight standing committees similar to those last term were established.

The major change of leadership for the committees is that freshman Council Member Gabe Johnson, who holds the Lanai residency seat, will chair the Affordable Housing Committee, previously chaired by Kama. She will now chair the Human Concerns and Parks Committee.

Kama could not be immediately reached for comment Sunday.

On Saturday, Rawlins-Fernandez made the motion to have Johnson become chair of the committee which was unanimously approved.

In an email Sunday, Rawlins-Fernandez said: “I believe Member Johnson and the team that he has assembled have ideas they are prepared to execute which will help us increase affordable housing for our residents.”

Lee added that “it is not unusual for people to change committee in a new term.”

“Tasha is very familiar with social services, that’s one of her strengths that she brings to the council is her experience in social services. That’s a good fit for her,” Lee said.

According to previous published reports, Kama has served as senior pastor of the Christian Ministry Church, was an advocate for Department of Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiaries and worked as a social justice organizer with Faith Action for Community Equity Maui, a nonprofit organization that worked to address the root causes of social justice challenges. Kama also was president of the Maui Affordable Housing Alliance.

For Johnson, Lee said he has lots of ideas that he wants to share regarding affordable housing.

“We are looking forward to his ideas of what he wants to share with us,” she said.

The other committees established Saturday with their chairperson and their residency seat:

• Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee, King, South Maui.

• Agriculture and Public Trust Committee, Shane M. Sinenci, East Maui. (Committee will also handle water issues).

• Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee, Michael J. Molina, Makawao-Haiku-Paia.

• Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee, Tamara Paltin, West Maui.

• Infrastructure and Transportation Committee, Yuki Lei K. Sugimura, Upcountry.

The council also approved the appointment of Director of Council Services Traci Fujita, County Clerk Kathy Kaohu, Deputy County Clerk James Krueger and the staff of the Office of Council Services. The Rules of the Council were adopted.

At the inauguration ceremony earlier Saturday, council members were sworn in by Judge Kirstin M. Hamman.

The keynote speaker was Kihei Charter School alumna Sophia Davis.

Davis is studying biomedical engineering at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. A 2018 high school graduate, Davis previously worked at Maui Innovation Group, where she helped build ventilators for Maui Memorial Medical Center.

She shared about her university experience as well as photos of herself in Scotland.

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

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