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Eight candidates battle for mayor in the most crowded county race

DECISION 2022

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Maui News is featuring the profiles and platforms of candidates in the lead-up to the Aug. 13 primary election. Today’s story focuses on the race for Maui County mayor. Final stories on other races will be published in the coming weeks. A special voters’ guide to candidates is included in today’s edition on page T1.

CULLAN BELL

Cullan Bell’s drive to run for mayor grew from his advocacy for children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The main reason why I’m running is my children and all of our children of Hawaii, really. I’m fighting for all of them,” he said.

Bell wanted mandates such as masking and vaccinations left up to the people, especially when it came to children.

Bell

“Everybody is different, I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m not anti-mask, but I definitely think it always should have been a personal choice, it always should have been a parental choice,” he said.

Bell took his advocacy to the state Board of Education, Department of Education and Department of Health.

He felt shunned after he, other community members and parents, including first responders, met with Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Mayor Michael Victorino during the pandemic.

“They were not listening to their constituents, they were listening to one side and one side only,” said Bell, one of the organizers of the failed recall effort against Victorino.

Now eyeing the mayor’s seat, Bell pointed to his experience as the owner of a small construction company where he deals with budgets and is responsible for hiring workers and contractors.

Bissen

In his line of work, he’s now looking to help local homeowners. He quit working for out-of-state real estate investment companies, as he couldn’t see himself assisting companies who would then turn around and sell homes at high prices.

Like many other local families, Bell has also considering moving away due to the high costs of island life.

On the issue of affordable housing, Bell said he hopes to establish at least a one-year minimum residency requirement before a person can purchase property, to ensure housing for residents. Bell said he would like to also require that only permanent residents have a short-term rental or rental property.

He also would like to figure out how to streamline permitting. The process is online now, but still difficult, especially for old-timers, he said.

Bell questioned “accountability” in county departments, as he felt some developments were getting through the permitting processes quicker than others. If elected, he said he would go through every department and “ensure every single executive in every department is going to be held accountable and everything is going to be done with transparency.”

Brown

Bell also thinks the county could better manage its water resources.

“We are not in a drought, we don’t have a water issue, we have a water mismanagement issue, big time,” he said.

Bell supports the community and county taking the lease that East Maui Irrigation is currently seeking to use water from the East Maui watershed. He advocated for the charter amendment that will be placed on the general election ballot to establish a water authority that would seek the lease.

Bell, who is helping out with the restoration of lo’i in Honomanu, said East Maui at one time could provide food for the entire island.

“We can be food dependent again but the mismanagement of the water is not allowing that,” he said.

Kay

Bell said if elected, the first three things he would do is begin “pulling back the curtain” and go through every department and ensure it is running efficiently and that executives are held accountable.

Secondly, he would like an audit and narrow down where federal COVID-19 funds have been spent in the county.

And thirdly, he would also talk to the DOE and DOH to make his case that parents have the choice over what medical procedures they want or don’t want for their child.

RICHARD BISSEN

While three of his opponents are current or former council members, retired 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Richard Bissen Jr. doesn’t see his lack of council experience as a drawback.

King

Bissen, who spent three decades as an attorney and judge, said there’s no direct correlation in “being a legislator and being an executive.”

“I think what people see is name recognition and familiarity in county government,” the 60-year-old Kahului resident said.

Bissen points to his executive experience heading the prosecutor’s office in the county from the mid-1990s to early 2000s, along with serving as the interim director of the state Department of Public Safety from 2004 to 2005 and as first deputy attorney general for the state from 2003 to 2004.

“I’d like to know what area of the mayor’s responsibility I would not be capable of doing, because again, it comes back to judgment, decision-making, problem-solving, working with people, I feel is my wheelhouse, that’s what I have been doing,” Bissen said.

The retired judge wants to make the jump from the bench to the Mayor’s Office, tackling issues like housing and water.

Bissen said he would look at an “inventory” of county, state and even private lands appropriate for building. He said land swaps could also be possible. He pointed out that often times what drives prices up is protests over developments that try to build in inappropriate places. Bissen said that the county needs to look for places from the start where it is appropriate to build. He also supports the county contributing to the infrastructure of projects to help cut down building costs.

For projects built specifically for residents, Bissen wants to have people qualify for a homeowners property tax exemption showing it would be their primary residence in order to buy it.

In the short term, Bissen would like to repurpose empty commercial space on island where water, sewer and parking are already in place. He envisions having a grocery store on a bottom level, doctors’ offices and a coffee shop, or other businesses depending on the demographics of the residents. Then homes will be built above.

Bissen said if he is elected, in the first 180 days, he would approve permits for 100 accessory dwelling units, such as ohanas and cottages. The benefit is that infrastructure is already in place, and it could help younger or older families find housing quickly. People will need to build according to pre-approved set plans set forth from the county. Approval for custom dwellings would take longer.

Bissen also believes every drought-prone area should be allowed to have water catchments. To avoid backflow where contaminated water could get into the county’s drinking water, he envisions two systems where the catchment system would go towards watering yards, cattle, cars or even flushing toilets “in a pinch.”

People waiting on water meters should be on catchments, he said. The owner would pay for the catchment, but in turn they may not pay as much for county water as they will be using the catchment, Bissen said.

For new neighborhoods, he suggested that homes have two water systems, one for drinking water and another for recycled wastewater.

“We would cut our water usage at least in half,” he said.

He wondered how much water could be saved even in the resorts by just reusing the wastewater for toilets.

The change may be expensive and “a paradigm shift,” but worth it in the long run for future generations of residents.

“I’m not running against anyone else, I’m running for my grandsons,” Bissen said. “So my focus is very different. I don’t see anyone as the enemy. . . . I’m not running against something or someone. I know many of them. I’ve known some of them for a long time. So I’m focused on why I’m doing this. To help my grandsons and other people’s grandchildren and generations to come. I think we are in a sense of urgency.”

KIM BROWN

At 9 years old, Kim Brown was ironing dress shirts for a nickel apiece.

“As a young kid, you don’t see the value in it,” she said. “But as an adult it just sets you up for success, to persevere.”

Brown grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and later Seattle. Her father immigrated from China to the U.S., and Brown was surrounded by her grandma and aunties who worked hard in Chinatown’s sewing factories, where they would sing to her while her parents were out working and attending school.

“Being raised by an immigrant, you have no option but to work,” said Brown, now the owner of her own business, Akamai Coffee Co.

Her father, a former sergeant in the Seattle Police Department, is the one who urged her to get into politics.

“If you want to positively influence your community, you will be involved with politics,” he said.

“And I said, ‘No dad, I’m going to influence them by serving them well, with coffee.’ And he would not relent.”

But as friends and customers urged her to do the same, Brown finally decided, “I can’t ignore this.”

Over the past two years, “our money and the hearts of the community” have been mismanaged and overlooked while the crises of water, housing and food have grown, the Makawao resident said.

“I was tired of seeing privileges for you know, developers, or the big businesses over the small business,” she said.

Brown said she looked over the current county budget of $1.07 billion, and “a lot of those monies don’t address our immediate needs.”

“For example, a $43 million cultural center, if we don’t have people here, who’s going to go to the cultural center?” she said. “We could drill four wells.”

Drilling wells and developing reservoirs are some of the promises that Brown said politicians make but don’t follow through. She said she will be an “advocate” for the public and will be accessible in the same way she is accountable to her customers.

Addressing Maui County’s ongoing drought, Brown said that “we live in one of the wettest places in the world.”

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to create reservoirs, catchment, drill wells, all of those things need to be in place,” she said.

She is also in support of the charter amendment to create a water authority and community board to seek a long-term water lease for areas in East Maui.

Brown also thinks the county and state should work together to streamline permitting and regulations processes to produce more affordable housing. She said that the permitting process is quick for some and very slow for others. There needs to be a discussion with permitting departments to see if something can be provided to speed up the process.

“I would love to see a four- to six-week permitting process,” Brown said.

She also suggested setting up more incentives for short-term rentals to rent to residents. But Brown said she will “have to look at the numbers” to see how much short-term rentals contribute to the county versus if they converted to long-term rentals.

Brown has also asked landowners about the possibility of having tiny homes on their properties. She said this could be a temporary solution when other longer-term housing is being worked on.

Brown said if elected mayor, she will bring “servitude” and her CEO experience to the offices.

She started Akamai Coffee Co. back in 2007 in the Home Depot parking lot after being turned down 20 times for a business lease around the island. She still has that original drive-thru coffee service as well as brick-and-mortar locations in Kihei and Wailea.

“I’m not a politician, I’m a business person. I want to bring a business’s sense in mind to turn this sinking ship around and say, ‘hey let’s give us a chance to survive here and thrive,’ because I don’t want to be just surviving, we’re just keeping our head above water, I want us to thrive. We have everything we need to thrive.”

ALANA KAY

In 1983, the 160-unit apartment complex pending foreclosure in Wisconsin was in disarray.

It was nicknamed the “cockroach village,” a place where college students would break down walls to make bigger apartments and throw wild parties. Out of the 160 units, only eight were officially occupied.

But Kay, who worked for the property management company, wanted to save it. She advertised free rent at the onset to get folks to live there and eventually pay rent. With no money to tear down on old building on the property, she got the fire department to use it for training and eventually burn it down.

Now, in her bid for Maui County mayor, Kay said the experience is one of the things that would help her in her mission of bringing people and groups together for the common good.

“I want to be in the position where everyone knows who I am and I can say, ‘why can’t we all get along?'” the 62-year-old Makawao resident said.

There are issues that all candidates can agree on that need work, including food security, affordable housing, managing tourism and caring for the ecosystem, she said.

“But we are just not working together,” Kay said.

On affordable housing, Kay said in the short term there could be “safe parking lots” allowing people to live in their cars to stay somewhere safe, an idea that is currently being proposed at the council level.

Another way to help residents get into homes would be having the county serve as a guarantor to help families be able to qualify for leases for homes to rent, Kay said. She added that lots of times families who may not show enough income to qualify but could make it work may be turned down as they do not meet certain standards on paper.

Affordable housing also should be prioritized for those who were born in the county and those who are of Hawaiian ancestry, she said.

In the long run, Kay said the county needs to diversify its economy so people can get better-paying jobs to be able to pay for rent and buy a home. This starts with training and education in areas such as in technology and farming, along with education for more specialized jobs. She acknowledged that workforce training is ongoing but that government needs to place more emphasis on it.

There also has to be a collective push for people working together to really diversify agriculture, Kay said, emphasizing that “in order to feed everybody here, Mahi Pono has to be part of the equation,” noting that small farmers cannot do it all.

“As long as we are fighting over water, and over who’s doing what, we are not going to advance that initiative,” she said of farming and diversification.

To address water resources and drought, Kay said the county needs to focus on the island’s hydrology, avoiding building on wetlands or aquifers and not having too many diversions.

While some may point to climate change as the cause of not having enough water, Kay said “we as humans on this island have impeded our hydrologic cycle by things we are doing.”

“We should use different building materials and different roofing materials and plant more trees in the city to improve the moisture and bring the temperature down,” she said.

Looking back on the current administration’s term, Kay said she did not support the decision to move forward with the West Maui wastewater injection wells lawsuit that went all the way up to the Supreme Court. However, she also did not support the council urging the county to settle, as she felt it would have been too much money.

She also did not like the “abrupt” shutdown of the island when the COVID pandemic hit, saying it felt “radical” and “tyrannical.”

“In retrospect states that didn’t shut down didn’t fare any worse,” she said.

KELLY KING

Council Member Kelly Takaya King thinks it’s time for a climate-focused mayor.

“I think we really need a climate mayor at this time and I have the most climate experience and environmental experience,” she said.

King is the chairwoman of the council’s Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee and founded Pacific Biodiesel with her husband, Bob, on Maui in 1995. She is also on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Local Government Advisory Committee and on the Board of Directors of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA.

“We should all be in a sense of urgency right now,” said King, a Kihei resident. “We know we have maybe eight years to try to enact the regulations that are going to help keep our temperature at a reasonable rate.”

King said Maui is already ground zero for sea level rise as she pointed to threatened beachfront condominiums in Kahana.

She has pushed a number of climate-related measures while on the council, including a bill that will only allow mineral sunscreens to be sold in Maui County and another that would require homes over 5,000 square feet to be net zero energy.

If elected as mayor, King aims to improve the coordination between the county and developers, saying that there are times that a mayor must step in to assist if there bumps in the permitting process. She recently was contacted by a veteran affordable home developer whose plans were in place but was having to answer the same questions over again after an employee assigned to the project retired.

“The mayor needs to step in at those points and say this is a priority,” King said.

King said she would take the various executive assistant positions in the Mayor’s Office and place at least two employees as ombudsmen for the planning process, to help smaller developers and individuals get through the permitting process.

She would also like to reimplement what was done during Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration, in which all departments would come to the mayor’s lounge to meet with developers once a month.

“So they could lay out, this is what I’m trying to do, can you see anything I need to change right away? It was an opportunity for them to talk to all departments in one day. Instead of submitting plans that go from one department, then they approve it, it goes to the next department and they approve it,” she said.

King pointed to the nearly $10 million in funding she obtained in this current fiscal year’s budget for a Maalaea Regional Wastewater Reclamation System. Not only will the system help take away the 24 outdated injection wells from the Maalaea community, she said treated water could also go toward agriculture and be used in drought situations.

King said she would seek to have similar systems used in larger Upcountry neighborhoods which have cesspools.

While there’s not one silver bullet, “if we can find solutions like this wastewater treatment facility that solves multiple problems, like the problem of water for agriculture, the problem of putting that water into injection wells, if we can keep it out of the injection wells and put it on the land to grow something, now we are solving two to three problems at the same time,” she said.

While on the council, King disagreed with the administration’s handling of the Lahaina injection wells case, saying she would have signed the settlement agreement.

“Basically we went to the Supreme Court for the right to pollute our own water,” said King, who introduced a resolution that the council passed to urge the administration to settle the matter.

As for other things she would have done differently, King said she would have also set up a task force when COVID hit, as she felt decisions on masking and vaccination would have been “more transparent” and the same transparency would have been shown with spending of the CARES Act money.

“People are still upset about that, nobody knows where that money went,” King said.

JONAH LION

With a degree in kinesiology, focusing on health and wellness, along with his experience as a personal trainer and former Reno firefighter, Jonah Lion says he can bring a sense of healing to the county.

“When looking at what has taken place, especially in the last two to three years, especially with COVID, we are really in a space of healing right now. And needing to heal, not only from a humanity level and us as a community, but also the land itself, the aina is also in such need of healing and our relationship with the aina,” said Lion.

It’s why Lion likes the idea of using alternative building materials such as repurposed plastics that could be upcycled and put into more affordable housing and kept out of the landfill. Another alternative building material that can be used is hempcrete (hemp mixed with a lime binder and water) or aircrete (aerated concrete), he said.

In the long run these materials can cut down homebuilding costs and help amend the soil, which leads back to helping with growing food and being sustainable, Lion said.

He also thinks the island has housing infrastructure but that too much of it is being used for short-term rentals.

“Lot of the infrastructure is used for short-term (rental), basically investment, money-making corporations coming in and buying multiple homes and turning it into an investment opportunity instead of it being housing for the locals,” he said. “If somebody is here and it is not their primary residence, than it needs to be a long-term rental.”

Lion wants the county to offer some type of rental security, as he has seen personally his rent increased by $700. The owners of his formal rental had been planning to move back to Maui, but after they changed their mind, his rent was instead increased by hundreds of dollars, he said.

As with housing, Lion also believes the county has the water it needs but just isn’t managing it well.

“It’s not so much a lack of water here, it’s a lack of ideas and old irrigation systems that need upgrades,” he said.

Like some of his opponents,Lion expressed dislike over East Maui waters being maintained by a private company. He said more emphasis should be put on getting more water to Upcountry farmers.

He said there needs to be a shift in water usage, as he feels that lots of the water is being taken up by resorts and “large monocrop corporate farming.” That needs to change to ensure small and local farms and residents’ “needs come first” and that resorts clamp down on usage.

He proposes that since the resorts use a lot of water, that they be made to grow food as well on their campuses; the same could go for golf courses, which, for example, could grow fruit trees.

Lion, who moved here three and a half years ago from Minneapolis, Minn., said he is new to Maui but has developed a very strong network of regenerative thinkers and people who are about sustainability.

“Whether or not I’m mayor or not mayor it’s more about what we can do as a community and bring a lot of these ideas forth and implement those as a vision for Maui,” he said.

MIKE MOLINA

Mike Molina points to his combined 35 years experience in county and state employment, and the fact that he was born and raised on Maui, as credentials to lead the county.

Molina, a Makawao resident, served on the Maui County Council from 2001 to 2010 before stepping down due to term limits. He was elected again in 2018 and 2020.

The Air Force and Air National Guard veteran has also been a teacher with the Department of Education and continues to serve as a substitute.

“I think my life experiences combined with my government experiences certainly will help and it definitely qualifies me to serve in this capacity, along with my legislative accomplishments,” Molina said.

Molina authored the charter amendment to establish an affordable housing fund, created the first-time homebuyers program and introduced the bill that led to the ban on plastic bags.

He’s got a list of more things that can be done for affordable housing, including looking at partnerships where the county provides the land and the builder puts up the homes. Some of the costs can be offset by using the Affordable Housing Fund to pay for infrastructure costs, and in return the builder could construct more affordable units with the savings.

Rentals could also be done in the same way, on county lands, with an outside builder doing the construction and a private party managing the rentals. A lease agreement could be worked out with a private party, and when the project is done, the building and the land could be turned back over to the county.

Other proposals include going “vertical” with housing, constructing more apartment-style homes or townhomes, or perhaps converting existing structures to housing.

Molina said he is working on legislation to put in motion the Home Restoration Grant, for which $270,000 was approved in the current county budget, $30,000 of which could be given to one family in each of the community plan district areas to help fix up old homes.

“If it works then future councils or future mayors can expand the funding to help more families that have these structures but just don’t have the money or the startup money to fix these homes that could be made livable again,” Molina said.

Molina holds the Makawao-Haiku-Paia residency seat, and while parts of his district see frequent rain, other areas are impacted by yearly drought. Molina said to help remedy the situation, the county could drill for more sources, create more reservoirs for storage, maybe using catchment systems and even considering working with the Department of Health to use and treat “grey water,” such as water from washing machines or dishwashers, to do things such as water plants.

He added that he also supported a charter amendment that would establish a county water authority to seek a lease for East Maui water use and give community members more of a say over water issues. The council recently voted to put the question on the general election ballot.

“I’m in favor of the county water authority to put (water) back in the hands of the public. After all water is a public trust,” he said.

Molina acknowledged his smaller campaign pot, as he had less funding than the three other likely front-runners, Richard Bissen Jr., Mayor Michael Victorino and fellow Council Member Kelly King. Molina had $8,474.02 in his campaign coffers at the last campaign spending report deadline. The mayoral candidate with the most left over was Bissen at $178,072.70.

Molina said that for the first 10 years of his political career, he received donations including from developers, but that later he declined them, explaining that he wanted to leave the big money out of the equation so his decisions will be clear when deciding on things such as rezoning.

He said he would like to see stricter campaign spending reforms and reduce spending limits, that way “the playing field is level.”

MICHAEL VICTORINO

At 4:45 p.m. one afternoon near the start of the pandemic, a senior care home provider called Mayor Michael Victorino to say just two employees would be able to care for 75 patients after 6 p.m.

Victorino called Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, adjutant general for the state of Hawaii. By 6:30 p.m., five National Guardsmen were at the care home.

While the pandemic spurred plenty of public criticism and an effort to recall Victorino, the mayor believes his leadership is the reason voters should keep him in office.

“First of all, I have proven as a leader, through this uncertain, unprecedented times, in the history of this county, state, nation and world, to keep people safe and healthy, was the main priority during this pandemic,” he said. “Whatever was needed we met those needs. When I say we, I’m talking about the county.”

When Maui Memorial Medical Center needed to expand its “warm unit” for COVID-patients and suspected patients, Victorino said the county was there to provide funds to do so. When the first COVID cases popped up in Hana and Molokai, the county was quick to get cleaning services.

But his other actions are what have led some to seek his position, with opponents raising concerns over mandates and shutdowns.

Looking back, Victorino said there was no playbook at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I do not regret putting any of these mandates out at that point in time. Because that was the best information available, whether it was from John Hopkins, or USC Medical, or Harvard,” Victorino said.

He said that at times medical advice conflicted each other, which also made decision-making hard.

Victorino said the shutdown of the islands, including the visitor industry, came from the state government.

If voters decide to reelect him, Victorino is hoping to make up for lost time in the pandemic and tackle ongoing issues like housing.

He pointed to more than half a dozen projects in the works, including the Waikapu Country Town project — which the county will provide wastewater services for in exchange for more units — as well as the 324-unit majority affordable Wailuku rental apartment project across from Longs Drugs in Kehalani.

“They are all things on the books we are moving forward,” Victorino said.

Addressing concerns raised by his competitors over the county’s lagging permitting process, Victorino said that the MAPPS or the County of Maui’s Automated Planning and Permitting System, which came online in April, should help modernize and make the process easier without having to bring plans down physically to county offices.

Victorino admitted there may have been some “kinks,” but “we are working through them.”

There will also be more training for personnel to help applicants better and more quickly through the process.

For frequent drought issues, Victorino suggested having more catchment systems and reservoirs and using gray water.

He noted that by 2027, the new Central Maui Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant should be up and could provide 7 million to 10 million gallons a day of R-1 water for agriculture and irrigation.

He also has plans for seeking out more water, saying that “drilling wells is one of my priorities for the Upcountry area” but acknowledged the cost of drilling and pumping the water. Adding more ground water to the system would require changes to treatment plants, yet another expense.

But he added: “Money is not an object. It’s not stopping me, because we will get federal infrastructure money and we have plans to move some of that forward in the next two to three years. That’s why I want to be re-elected because I know what we can do. We have it all ready to move. Keep the ball rolling, I call it. It’s hana hou time. I’ve lost two and a half years to COVID, now I want to do this.”

He also supports establishing county water authorities, which will be up to voters in the general election.

As for his first-term record, he defended going forward with the Lahaina injection well case.

He said the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling “was so ambiguous” and could have affected homeowners with septic systems, which is why the county took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He said the high court’s ruling brought more clarity.

To the issue of transparency with the CARES Act federal COVID relief funds, Victorino said he provided reports to the council committees every month as he knows they are part of the checks and balances of government. When members of the public asked for an accounting of the money, reports were given to them as well.

“We are not hiding anything,” he said.

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

Lion

Molina

Victorino

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