Playing politics can affect public safety

Our County

During our emergency work after the Iao Valley flood last year, the county wrote to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs seeking guidance on how to properly move the rocks and boulders during our repair efforts. On Nov. 17, they wrote back to us saying that as long as

we did our best to return the material to the valley, OHA would “fully support this effort to protect and preserve pohaku.”

But despite our best efforts, certain County Council members and activists continued to criticize the county’s emergency work, and have even gone so far as to challenge the reimbursement of emergency funds to departments. While I have always promoted the Hawaiian culture whenever possible I have no tolerance for those who take the culture and twist it for their own purposes.

Recall that in September, some 3 billion to 4 billion gallons came rushing down the Wailuku River, far surpassing the 30 million to 40 million gallons a day that usually comes through. Homes were ruined, people had to be evacuated, half our parking lot at Kepaniwai Park fell into the river and our flood control downstream was badly damaged.

Our departments began emergency work immediately; Public Works, Water Supply and Parks and Recreation were all actively involved. Our other departments and divisions such as our Emergency Management Agency and Environmental Management provided support services.

We worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers daily to make sure we knew what receipts to keep and how to fill in federal reports and documents properly. We had community meetings and emailed Iao Valley residents directly with a weekly update so people knew what was going on with the work we were doing.

We had also heard that some in the Native Hawaiian community were angry at the work that the Wailuku Water Co. (WWC) was doing in the river.

Even though we had no jurisdiction, the county was asked to look into it and we did. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, WWC permits were legitimate. Unfortunately, some protesters weren’t happy with that answer.

That’s when these individuals began looking at the work the county was doing, searching for something that we had been doing wrong because they were angry they couldn’t stop WWC. They discovered that rocks from the valley were being crushed and thought they had a “smoking gun” that we were violating some sort of law.

The bottom line is we had trucks removing boulders and storing them in Waikapu. We had another set of trucks cleaning up the silt and trees and other debris from our flood control and taking it to Central Maui Landfill for processing.

What we neglected to tell our workers at the landfill was that they might find rocks in the silt, and if so, don’t crush them. This was not an intentional attempt to offend the Native Hawaiian community, but it happened.

Yet the story that Council Member Elle Cochran, her staff, along with new Council Member Kelly King have tried to spread is that the crushed rock is a reason to withhold reimbursing emergency funds to our county departments that did emergency work.

This is politics at its worst, because it affects the safety of our community. Our departments need the funds and resources to respond to emergencies, and without those funds we leave our community at risk.

Frustrated and angry, I lashed out with my “no sacred rocks” interview on live television. Unfortunately, I offended true practitioners of the Hawaiian culture and I would like to sincerely apologize to those people.

What I won’t apologize for is for standing up for our county workers who put in long hours trying to protect our community. I won’t apologize for trying to help the residents of Iao Valley and those living along our flood control. I won’t apologize for using the same boulders from Iao Valley to repair our public infrastructure.

Again, if you had nothing to do with trying to stop emergency funds from reimbursing our departments for the work they did after the Iao flood and were offended by my comments, then I do apologize to you.

Otherwise, this apology was not meant for you.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column usually appears on the first and third Fridays of the month.