Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 9 primary, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.

The following came from Gilbert Keith-Agaran, Democratic candidate for state senator for District 5. Democrat Christy Gusman is also running.

District 5 includes Wailuku, Waihee and Kahului in Maui County.

Go to Civil Beat’s Elections Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Name: Gilbert Keith-Agaran

Office: State Senate District 5

Party: Democrat

Profession: Attorney

Education: Maui High School, Kahului, Maui; Yale College, New Haven, Conn.; Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California at Berkeley

Age: 51

Community organizations: Board member currently:  Tri-Isle RC&D Council (vice-president); Friends of Maui Waena. Member: Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. Former board member: Maui Food Bank; Good Shepherd Episcopal Church; Maui Memorial Medical Center Foundation; Community Clinic of Maui; Maui High School Community Council; Maui Coastal Land Trust.

Gilbert Keith-Agaran, State Senate District 5 candidate, 2014

Gilbert Keith-Agaran

1. Why are you running for state senator? 

I’ve been honored to serve as Central Maui’s state senator since 2013 and state representative since 2009, applying lessons learned as a community and church volunteer, experience, knowledge and skills as a practicing attorney and former state and county department director in addressing our common local and statewide challenges.  I’m not a career politician (I initially was appointed to fill the position of the late-Rep. Bob Nakasone and was appointed to fill the first two years of the Senate term won by Shan Tsutsui in 2012) but like many of my friends and peers, I’ve been committed to community service for much of my adult working life.  I’ve served on many different non-profit and community boards since moving home after college and law school.  I formerly sat on the boards of the Community Clinic of Maui, the Maui Food Bank, A Keiki’s Dream, the Maui Memorial Medical Center Foundation, the Maui Leadership Council to the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, among others.  I also served on the Maui High School Community Council before being appointed to the Legislature.

2. Are you satisfied with the current plans to pay for the state’s unfunded liabilities? If not, how would you propose to meet pension and health obligations for public workers?

The growth of the unfunded liability in public employee pension and retirement health benefits did not occur overnight and addressing the unfunded amount will require an approach that balances the need to meet current government program funding while paying down the unfunded liability in a meaningful rather than token fashion.  The legislation passed over several sessions will reduce the unfunded liability for the State Retirement System. This includes changing many of the benefit and eligibility benchmarks so that the liability can be met over time without drastically raising taxes; for example, the administration and Legislature have amended the benefits package for future hires (there are legal issues with cutting benefits already earned and vested by existing employees and retirees). Based on certain estimates, the amount of the unfunded liability exceeds the current state’s approximately $6 billion general fund operating budget by up to five times. While it would be irresponsible to simply continue to pay as you go (paying only the current amounts needed to meet current retirement and health costs), the state would need to raise taxes exponentially to fund the unfunded liability immediately while still cutting most state programs — including lower and higher education, health programs and the social welfare safety net which make up the bulk of the state budget. The approach to pay down a portion of the unfunded liability incrementally is the proper approach. However, these obligations require consistent appropriations and should remain priorities every year, even during tough economic cycles. A similar approach should be considered for the Employee Union Trust Fund.

3. Where do you stand on labeling of genetically engineered food and pesticide regulation? Are these public safety issues, or are the dangers exaggerated?

As recent polls indicate, many Hawaii residents have concerns generally about GMOs and pesticide use associated with GMO crops, including suspicion and fear of the influence of multi-national corporations on food production, loss of biodiversity, or the consequences of pesticide use.  Whether or not GMO foods are safe to grow and eat is somewhat separate from the Monsanto or multi-national corporation issues and the present science, such as it is, doesn’t appear to conclusively resolve the question of safety.

Food labeling has been an important tool to provide information to consumers regarding what we eat and what we feed our keiki. I did co-sponsor one of the bills considered by the state Senate (introduced by my Maui colleague J. Kalani English) for continued discussion on whether Hawaii should require GMO labeling of some kind.  Given the wide use of GMO corn and soy in the United States (some estimates indicate approximately 90 percent of corn, soy, canola and cotton grown in the United States has been genetically engineered to resist pests or certain herbicides), consumers should be educated that most processed foods containing corn or soy ingredients likely contain GMO. Vermont, a small state like Hawaii, has passed a GMO labeling law and may provide important lessons on whether the dire impacts and costs identified by opponents to GMO labeling have real weight.

The issues of pesticide use or regulation by the state and federal government have at times conflated discussion on GMO health concerns with the safety of pesticide use and whether the federal and state oversight over pesticides has been robust enough to ensure safe use. Commonly available pesticides are widely used by state agencies and smaller agricultural enterprises for weed control, as well as the general public on their private property, but much of the public discussion has focused on the pesticide use by the large seed companies. Especially for large commercial operators, pesticide use should always be safely applied according to the manufacturer’s instructions and within the guidelines specified by government agencies. We should make sure that the state agencies providing oversight have the resources to properly monitor and regulate pesticide use. As our islands continue to transition from a rural/agricultural landscape to denser, more urban uses, where land use planning is occurring as subdivisions are built closer to working fields, agencies should consider locating and maintaining buffers between homes and schools and existing agricultural operations.

In November, Maui voters will have an opportunity to direct the county government to impose a moratorium on new GMO plantings. If the experience on Kauai and the Big Island is any indication, if the people adopt the proposed ordinance, whether or not the County of Maui has the resources and people to enforce and implement the proposed ordinance and the authority to do so, will likely end up in court.

4. Local officials and advocates have worked to address homelessness for years, yet the crisis is growing. What proposals do you have for this complicated issue?

Homelessness is not a problem with a proverbial silver bullet solution. For those who have fared badly during the recent tough economy, job creation and affordable housing are fundamental issues. For other homeless residents, what is also required are opportunities to address homeless individuals’ physical and mental well-being as well as access to education and training.

I have supported programs such as Housing First and local community efforts to assist homeless individuals, but there is no single solution. We need to intervene as needed recognizing that the population has many causes, such as mental illness, drug addiction, economic hardship, domestic abuse, laziness, and stranded newcomers. We need to intervene with consistent effort, even when it is difficult.

5. Hawaii’s cost of living is the highest in the country by many indicators. What can really be done to make things like housing, food and transportation less expensive?

More emphasis should be placed on providing incentives for building affordable rentals and workforce development housing. Many residents are unable to afford the high cost of living in Hawaii and affordable rentals may be the most practical way of addressing this dilemma. We need to bring down the cost of building homes. We also need to re-orient our ideas about houses and homes. If we are to maintain open space and options for our agricultural land other than urban development, we need to look at denser options.

Hawaii needs to implement its lofty sustainability goals.  It’s estimated our islands import more than $7 billion in fuel and food from the outside.  About 5 percent of Hawaii’s total energy comes from “renewable” sources. The remainder is still fossil fuel-based and some estimates are that Hawaii pays outside sources up to $7 billion annually (78 percent imported from foreign countries, and 22 percent from domestic sources, principally Alaska). About 8 percent of electricity generated is from renewable sources.  The Public Utilities Commission needs to make sure Hawaii’s utilities stay on track to meet the benchmarks for renewable sources.

I’ve supported the food and energy security bill to provide funding for projects promoting Hawaii’s food and energy independence (Act 73 (2010)). Leveraging mandatory activities to support local agriculture and farming makes sense.  The Department of Education (DOE) procures large amounts of food for meals; its purchasing power should support local agriculture.  I’ve co-sponsored bills using the state’s buying power to promote locally grown food but the state agencies delegated to regulate how processed foods are treated for use in our schools need to facilitate use of locally grown produce.

If we can reduce this export of local money and provide for ourselves, we can re-circulate and invest our financial resources in the local economy and workforce. I will continue to support the move to a greener Hawaii by working with county officials and businesses to identify additional areas where state laws need changes for local businesses to thrive but which also foster sustainability. For example, the Legislature has considered the appropriateness of locating wind and solar energy facilities on agricultural land which facilities generate more power than needed to just support the agricultural activities on that land.

6. Are you satisfied with the way Hawaii’s public school system is run? How can it be run better?

All school systems can be better. I’m pleased to see that our public schools appear to be improving on the test taking end of things. However there are areas and measurements that can still be improved to benefit and foster student achievement. And those areas require efforts not just by the administrators, principals, teachers and support staff working for the Department of Education (DOE), but the parents, businesses and community members who should all recognize their roles as stakeholders in a quality public school system.

First, funding equity should continue to be reviewed. On the Neighbor Islands where we have some smaller rural schools, under the student weighted formula, schools with small enrollments can be left with inadequate resources to meet many of the same overhead costs that are not accounted for within the matrix developed by the Department of Education’s (DOE’s) Committee on Weights. Overhead costs such as administration, non-teaching positions (i.e., school nurses), maintenance, and enrichment positions should be given equally to each school with allocations for teaching staff then made based on enrollment. I would support restoring categorical funding to Hawaii’s rural and remote schools as an option to make funding more equitable.

Second, infrastructure must provide students with a safe place to learn. The primary role of the legislature is to provide and fund school facilities (as well as meet the DOE’s budget priorties), including better repair and maintenance of the 20th century infrastructure as the DOE strives for a 21st century education. Central Maui has seen the opening of two additional elementary schools (Pomaikai and Puu Kukui) in recent years and the funding of the long-planned Kihei high school campus. The construction of a long-awaited STEM 8-classroom building began this summer at Maui Waena Intermediate School (one of two large middle schools in Central Maui) but additional funds may be needed to provide students with the latest equipment and tech resources.  The Legislature has also approved the initial funding for a third Central Maui Middle School to reflect the growing and anticipated population growth in Kahului, Wailuku, Waikapu and the proposed Waiale project district.

Third, all parties need to support the efforts to address improvements in administrator and teacher training and evaluations. Performance-based contracts need to be implemented for principals in the spirit of Act 51 (2004). I also recognized at the time that in the future, teachers need to be closely involved with how funds are used in the local school setting and teacher evaluation needs to become more rigorous with rewards for effectiveness. I understand the state and HSTA have agreed to a teacher evaluation system that ties compensation to performance. Performance measures and incentives, including merit-based pay, have to be accompanied by effective mentoring and support programs, and opportunities for high quality preparation and training.

The DOE’s Hawaii Educator Effectiveness System (EES) needs to be structured and implemented in a way that acknowledges factors outside the control of classroom teachers and does not overly elevate subjective factors over measurable considerations. I believe teacher performance should be measured on a set of empirically gathered data such as student interaction (where and when appropriate) or classroom dialogue that can then be analyzed with proper opportunity for teacher review and response for understanding and reflection by the evaluator. Student performance should be based on a number of indicators including student growth, increase in student comprehension in the subject area, expression, creativity and processing skills, with the kind of student kept in mind. This should be based on a variety of kinds and types of indicators including but not limited to portfolio assessment, longitudinal surveys, and student interview. In theory, proper use of the EES should be good for teacher morale in that teachers will be given good feedback from their students and better direction and support from their principals and help direct resources to provide high-quality preparation and training as needed.

Finally, from my time volunteering with Maui High School SCBM and later its School Community Council, I know the importance of getting parent and community involved in our schools. One of the hardest tasks we had was to recruit additional parents to serve on the Council. Students’ socio-economic status and parental support play a large role in whether students show up at school ready to learn. The importance given to educational activities and support for students can make an important difference for whether school is a meaningful experience for our children. Because of this, these factors must be given some weight or measurement in the student’s final evaluation. The school must also provide the opportunity for meaningful parental participation in the evaluation system. My community–like many working class and immigrant neighborhoods throughout the state — have a lot of single-parent households, or families where all adults must work (including working two or three jobs). Extended family, teachers, counselors and coaches often play an important role in many of these families in modeling citizenship as well as in valuing education.

 7. Would you support using liquefied natural gas as part of the state’s energy sources? And what thoughts do you have on improving the electric distribution system (the grid) so more renewables can be in the mix?

As part of a transition to better and more use of Hawaii’s renewable energy sources, I am open to all options to deal with our energy needs. LNG or liquefied natural gas is an option, but like oil, it has to be imported into our state. With the apparent abundance of U.S. natural gas, LNG appears attractive as an alternative to oil. But while LNG is cleaner, development of LNG has been associated with the controversial use of fracking.

Our state has the potential to tap an abundance of natural resources such as solar, wind, ocean, and volcanically-derived heating to meet our energy needs. The question of the reliability of all of these systems to deliver electricity for our needs at a cost much less than that of the current oil-based model remains the primary objection from Hawaiian Electric and certain policymakers. Hawaiian Electric should be pushed to shift from an energy producer to a manager of the grid, for example, ensuring its grid can accommodate full development of photovoltaic use by residences who want to tap solar power. The utility needs to shift to primarily managing and stabilizing the power grid while incorporating a diversity of power generation and distribution.

8. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Yet many citizens are unable to afford the costs that state and local government agencies impose. Would you support eliminating search and redaction charges and making records free to the public except for basic copying costs?

Public records should be available to the public. I also believe that costs associated with locating and redacting records should be paid. If the current law allowing certain breaks in the costs need changing, the Legislature should consider it as technology makes locating records cheaper and easier.

9. There is a desire to grow the economy through new development yet also a need to protect our limited environmental resources. How would you balance these competing interests?

New developments must be well thought out and compatible with the plans and needs of the particular community affected. Development and environmental protection do not have to be competing interests. That’s a false choice. A healthy community needs both. Many Central Maui residents still cling to its rural heritage as our towns lose their distinctions (Wailuku, Kahului, Waihee and Waikapu are increasingly interconnected without any buffer between them). In order to maintain the quality of life in Central Maui — to make the notion of “Dream City” not just a developer’s slogan — our towns need to be places where we can and want to live, play, work, raise our families and grow old. This means that infrastructure has to allow efficient movement from home to work to shop and to school and allow for non-motorized transportation alternatives. While the buffers between the towns have been filled, that has allowed a smarter way of using existing infrastructure to support new developments — new roads provide more direct routes and options to move from work to school and to shop, waste water and water delivery lines are improved, and new parks can be planned and constructed.  The community members serving on state and county boards and commissions with discretionary authority over proposed developments must take their responsibilities under the state Constitution seriously to protect natural and cultural resources and to address concerns expressed by the affected community.

10. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?

Our Neighbor Island communities rely on the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation’s (HHSC’s) public acute-care hospitals (including Maui Memorial Medical Center (MMMC)) for frontline healthcare. In my first session after being appointed to the House seat, I worked with other neighbor island legislators to push through Act 182 (2009). Act 182 provided more authority at the local (regional) level for management of HHSC facilities.  Act 182 also gave local residents and healthcare providers more flexibility to set priorities and goals for Maui County health care needs.

The primary goal of maintaining and improving MMMC and other HHSC operations is to provide our neighbor island communities with the best healthcare available. Our residents shouldn’t have to fly to Honolulu or the mainland for quality hospital care. When we discuss pursuing public-private partnerships regarding HHSC, let’s be clear that legal barriers prevent whole-scale public hospital privatization (Kula Hospital is on Ceded Lands and Hawaii law presently does not allow sale of our hospitals).  However, it’s crucial and practical for HHSC to explore public-private partnerships with responsible allies who can bring to Maui additional financial, operational and medical expertise. The state displays growing resistance to indefinitely subsidizing HHSC’s largely neighbor island operations financially so the status quo is not a viable option. We can structure a statutory framework for HHSC to explore alliances while addressing local stakeholder and public concerns about current employees and their benefits and allocating responsibilities for the existing debt service on HHSC’s public facilities. While some stakeholders and policymakers prefer partnering only with Hawaii-based private healthcare providers (i.e., Queens or Kapiolani), I would support giving HHSC flexibility to work with and negotiate with mainland nonprofit hospitals as well.

At the same time, we need to continue building the capacity in Central Maui to provide needed health and human services by improving the public infrastructure leading to and within the expanding health and higher education corridor between Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente, Maui Medical Group, Malama I Ola Community Clinic and UH Maui College. Kaiser Permanente has made a substantial investment in expanding its space and services on Maui. Malama I Ola Community Clinic has additional room in the former Ooka Supermarket for additional clinical services.  UH Maui College, with one of the late U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye’s final initiatives, has renovated and reopened one of its building to better house the various healthcare offerings at the school.