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Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 general election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Eileen O’Hara, a candidate for Hawaii County Council District 4, which includes Hawaiian Paradise Park, Hawaiian Beaches, Makai of Pahoa Town, Nanawale Estates, Leilani Estates, Pohoiki and Kapoho. There is one other candidate, Madeline Greene.
Name: Eileen O’Hara
Office seeking: Hawaii County Council, District 4
Occupation: Faculty, University of Hawaii at Hilo, College of Business and Economics, and College of Agriculture; forestry; natural resource management; faculty, Kaplan University Online, School of Legal Studies, Environmental Management and Policy Program
Community organizations/prior offices held: President, Hawaiian Shores Community Association, 2011-2016; County Cost of Government Commission, 2010-2011; State Environmental Council, 2004-2008
Age as of Aug. 13, 2016: 64
Place of residence: Lower Puna
Campaign website: www.ohara4puna.com
1: This year has seen an outsized influence from people who want big changes in how government is run. What would you do to change how the Council is run?
We already allow citizens to attend our County Council meetings via audio/video links from several locations in the County. Although, given the size of the Big Island, we may need to consider adding new sites for the more remote districts to participate directly in Council meetings. I’m a big fan of using technology to ensure the legislative process is more inclusive of constituents.
This year is historic in that no matter what the outcome of the upcoming election, we will have a female majority on the County Council. At least five, and potentially up to seven female members, will be elected to our nine-member County Council. That dynamic alone may lead to changes in how the Council operates!
2. Should your county implement a 0.5 percent GET surcharge? If so, for what purpose?
Ostensibly, the proposal at the County of Hawaii to add 0.5 percent to the GET surcharge is for transportation projects, yet the GET is applied to the sale of all goods and services. There is already a state income tax rebate on the expenditures of GET tax for low-income households, which helps offset the impacts, yet some may see this as a regressive tax impacting low-income households more than high-income households.
While the Hawaii County roadways are in need of better maintenance and expanded access, I would like to consider other ways of increasing funds available for those needs before increasing the GET surcharge. There are grant and low interest federal loan programs that the county may not be taking advantage of which should be considered first. Changing how the fuel tax funds are apportioned for specific transportation needs across the island’s nine districts may help address some of the transportation deficit as tax funds collected have often gone unspent in the respective district.
3. 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?
The County of Hawaii has for years shunned the use of developer impact fees, which, in part, address the need to preserve and maintain environmental resources for future generations, which is a fundamental sustainability concept. When we give up natural capital in the form of encroaching on important environmental resources that help preserve the integrity of the many sensitive eco-systems that comprise our Big Island, we must provide an offset in the form of manmade capital to ensure environmental integrity for future generations.
One approach to ensure we consider current and future environmental impacts is to emphasize community-based planning. The community-based development plan made over the last decade hasve provided a democratic process for citizen input into future development. While it does involve committing county resources to this type of planning, the outcome provides for a more in-depth analysis of the development challenges and allows for innovative solutions to be considered. We need to continue to strengthen our community-based planning, build capacity within the homeowner associations in the Puna districts, and provide connectivity within districts for all the community groups actively seeking to effect the way development occurs in our communities.
4. What would you do to strengthen police accountability?
Currently, we have a weak oversight system for the Police Department. While the County Charter provides for general supervision of the department by the mayor through the managing director, neither the mayor nor the County Council plays a direct role in providing oversight. That role is designated to the Police Commission, a body consisting of nine members from each district appointed by the mayor and confirmed by County Council. Under the current administration, the Police Commission had ongoing vacancies making it difficult to meet quorum to conduct official business. This lack of oversight has created public distrust of county policing services.
The County Council should consider County Charter changes to strengthen oversight, accountability and transparency within the Police Department. This must involve a public process to identify changes that will enhance the operations of the Police Department and restore trust in our policing services. Currently, only the Police Commission can appoint or discharge the chief of police. Commissioners are not elected, but selected by the mayor. There needs to be better technology and more high quality training within the Police Department, yet the County Charter does not direct either the administrative or legislative branch to require those changes.
5. What specific steps would you take to strengthen Hawaii’s lax lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure laws?
Public officials are required to provide financial disclosures of situations where they may have a conflict of interest. If someone fails to comply, provides misinformation, or fails to disclose activities as required by law, then there is legal recourse. With regard to lobbyists, we need a stronger system to identify those outside interests and their access to legislators so that voters can be aware of the forces impacting their rule making bodies like the County Council. For cleaner elections, the state Legislature needs to consider laws to prevent our local elections from being influenced by large business lobbyists.
I support the efforts at the Hawaii County Council to change the County Charter pertaining to the number of representatives on our ethics board, as well as expanding their authority to handle more complaints from the public. Current rules allow for only a five-member board of residents, which doesn’t provide representation of all nine political districts on the island. Having worked as a civil servant in county and state government, and as an aide to an elected official, I felt that employees had little concern for ethics code violations, simply because we have a weak approach to enforcing our code of ethics.
6. Would you support eliminating Hawaii’s high fees for access to public records when the request is in the public interest?
Yes! I recently attended a talk sponsored by our local chapter of the League of Women Voters that was given by the president of the Big Island Press Club and was astounded to learn the costs the media is being asked to pay to access documents that are required to be made available to the public. Investigative reporting conducted with journalistic integrity is difficult enough in today’s world due to global mergers of large news syndicates, and we should not make it cost-prohibitive for smaller news sources and independent journalists to acquire the documents and facts needed to properly conduct an investigation.
7. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
Be accessible. In today’s age with cell phones, social media and instantaneous communications, there should always be an opportunity for elected officials to be contacted by constituents. Further, managing one’s staff at the Council level such that they are empowered to interact with the public and take action on requests and concerns that may not require bringing the matter before the County Council will ensure that the public have adequate access to my office at the County Council.
It is important for elected officials to circulate within their represented districts and around the island to be able to listen to constituents regarding their concerns and hear ideas regarding how local problems might be resolved. This is a 24/7 job – although identified as a part-time position – and it requires stamina and energy to be able to adequately represent my district and island. I am up for the job and will try my hardest to ensure my constituents are listened to and have a voice, through me, at the County Council. I’m a firm believer in the concept that representative government only works when you have an active constituency with good interaction with their elected official.
8. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
We have high poverty rates and need to encourage small businesses, workplace training to teach job skills, and locally accessible higher education classes. We need alternative access into Lower Puna for times when Highway 130 is closed that also serves as a bike/pedestrian path. We must address the issue of homeowner associations paying to maintain private subdivision roads that are open to the public. We have two emergency access roads in Lower Puna and need to integrate with our existing road system. Expenditure of a portion of county fuel tax funds on private subdivision roads used as main corridors varies county to county with other counties already spending fuel tax funds for private road maintenance.
We do not have adequate police services in Puna, a district larger in size than Oahu. We need more officers and could make use of technology (dash cams, cell phones, and better database systems) to reduce response times and provide better follow-up. Leadership in the Police Department will change with this election and as expressed above, the Council should consider potential County Charter changes to ensure greater accountability within the Police Department, as well as more direct oversight by the county’s administration and legislative body.