Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 general election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Nick Nikhilananda, a Green candidate for the state House, District 13, which includes Haiku, Hana, Kaupo, Kipahulu, Nahiku, Paia, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai and Molokini. There is one other candidate, Democrat Lynn Decoite.
Name: Nick Nikhilananda
Office seeking: State House of Representatives, District 13
Community organizations/prior offices held: Co-chair, Green Party of Hawaii, 2009-2014; co-Chair, Maui County Green Party of Hawaii, 1994-2000; member, producer/host, “Maui Talks-TV,” Akaku, 2002-2011; Maui County commissioner, Maui County Board of Variances and Appeals, 1995 – 2000; member, Maui County Mayor’s Task Force on Higher Education, 1993-1995; member, board of directors, Akaku: Maui Community Television, 2001 – 2006; member and past president, board of directors; Haiku Community Association, 1999-2006; volunteer mediator, Mediation Services of Maui, 1991-2010; volunteer mediator, District Court, Small Claims Division, 2000-2002; volunteer counselor, Imua Rehab Summer Camp, 1991-1993 and 1999
Age as of Aug. 13, 2016: 65
Place of residence: Huelo Maui
Campaign website: friendsofnikhilananda.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 Legislature is run?
A major shift would be requiring that the Legislature is subjected to the sunshine laws. Expand the utilization of testimony allowed and accepted remotely from the neighbor islands. There needs to be more unbiased reporting and coverage of committee hearings by media outlets throughout the state. This may require financial incentives from the government to those providers. There needs to be expanded use of the legislative websites for ease of access for all hearings and legislation.
Money has an exorbitant amount of influence on elected officials. Limit the ability of lobbyists to have inappropriate leverage on members of the Legislature. Enforce, tighten and strengthen laws relating to ethics and reporting of campaign contributions. There are other items which would impact the Legislature. Instituting campaign finance and electoral reform would open up the possibility of a more diverse composition of members. Term limits is another progressive reform; not “term pauses” as currently exists in Maui County, but real limits.
Expand both the staff and funding for the Public Access Room. I would also work to pass legislation which allows write-in voting; Hawaii is one of only five states which does not provide this option in elections. Require and record roll call votes.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizen’s initiative process. Do you support such a process?
In a democracy, this may be one of the most important items to allow, along with making voting as universal and accessible as possible. On Maui, I have long been a champion of lowering the threshold for successfully placing a ballot initiative or charter amendment on the ballot. It is way too difficult.
Yet, in 2014, a concerted effort by thousands of volunteers were able to not only get the first initiative on the ballot, but it was passed by the citizens and voters of Maui County. Sadly, the elected officials did not support it and it is currently in the ninth circuit court on appeal. I have gone to the Maui County Charter Commission numerous times in 2000 and 2010, testifying to place a number of initiatives on the ballot without success.
The chair of the Council committee on placement of issues on the ballot recently stated that having too many on the ballot would only confuse voters! What an insulting thing to say! On the state level, it is unacceptable that Hawaii does not allow initiatives to be placed on the ballot. Also we should have referendums to get a sense of where voters are at on a particular subject.
3. Hawaii has long been dominated by the Democratic Party establishment. Should this change, and if so, how?
The party is controlled by a certain power structure, connected to large landowners, multi-nationals and unions. Most join the party because of this influence, with little opposition from the Greens, Libertarians or Republicans. The Democrats have a wide range of cliques and positions within the party membership. It is necessary for progressives, environmentalists, humanists and those who want to see change occur in Hawaii to deal with the majority party.
In Hawaii County seven times, three members of the Green Party were elected to their County Council. The Greens were formed mostly by dissatisfied Democrats, but found the party smothering. Two former Green Party candidates left the party, joined the Democrats, and were elected to the state House and the state Senate. We also see Republicans realizing the futility of staying in that party, joining the Democrats, and also successfully able to run for office.
Most voters have been indoctrinated into the belief that there are only two political parties and one needs to vote for one or the other. We need to demand that all candidates receive equal treatment from the media. We must institute campaign finance reform, public financing of elections, plus move toward preferential/instant runoff/ranked choice voting.
4. What specific steps would you take to strengthen Hawaii’s lax lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure laws?
The first step for me would be to research and fully comprehend what are the significant laws which currently exist. Chapter 84 is the State Ethics Code and Chapter 97 is the section dealing with lobbyists. I would do a comprehensive review of the laws and operations within the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.
Most elected officials attempt to do the “right thing,” nevertheless, there will always be some who take advantage of the loopholes and stretch what is currently legal and allowed. Limit the ability of lobbyists to have inappropriate leverage on members of the Legislature. Enforce, tighten and strengthen laws relating to ethics and reporting of campaign contributions.
The power which lobbyists and money have toward access to members is extremely imbalanced. Too many former legislators become lobbyists in too short a time with an enormous amount of access to elected officials. I would introduce and support legislation which would tighten up the oversight of what lobbyists are allowed to do with elected officials. As stated above, I would require that the Legislature is subject to the state sunshine laws. I would seek out additional input from members of the community to examine what various ideas they may have.
5. Would you support eliminating Hawaii’s high fees for access to public records when the request is in the public interest?
The Federal Public Access to Court Electronic Records (“PACER”) system allows users to view and print various docket information from the federal trial, bankruptcy and appellate courts. Congress has authorized the ability to raise funds to support PACER by setting appropriate user fees. However to ensure the fees do not impair public access to the courts, Congress directed the Judicial Conference to “provide for exempting persons or classes of persons” for whom fees would be an unreasonable burden. This federal template is used by various state agencies to obtain documents for research and information.
However, it appears that this ability to get a waiver from exorbitant charges does not apply to media outlets. This is outrageous! Investigative journalism is a requirement for a free and open democratic society. Reasonable fees, as taxes, are a requirement for operating government on all levels; however, there is a chilling effect when charges outstrip the ability for the person requesting the information to pay. We need to do whatever is possible to adopt legislation which allows media outlets to obtain the information they need to educate and inform the community and citizens of Hawaii. A reasonable fee structure is appropriate; exorbitant charges are not.
6. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
Lobbyists and money have too much influence over our lives and the political system in Hawaii. The power of the large multi-national corporate landowners, the trade unions, the visitor industry and having a one political party state results all too often with representatives and legislators paying limited attention to the vast majority of residents. I will be as available and in touch with my constituents as feasibly possible.
The 13th District includes three of the most remote communities in the state on three different islands. I would establish full-time operating offices in those communities, holding regularly scheduled outreach meetings with the entire district, which is mostly rural, secluded and removed from many of the necessary services which the residents need, require and deserve. I must be available so constituents can contact me and reply and respond to questions and requests in a timely manner.
The position is that of a representative, which requires constant contact with the inhabitants of this vast legislative district. It requires both vigilance on my part to reach out to the communities, educating and informing them of what is happening in the Legislature, and being opened to requests from those truly interested in what is happening.
7. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The quality of life is a significant issue facing the mostly secluded, remote and rural regions of this area of Maui County. It is patently unfair that the 13th State House District includes three of the most remote communities in the state, on three different islands. Each community is unique and what impacts Molokai is not the same as the needs which East Maui demands.
Access and expansion to medical facilities, government services and educational opportunities are areas which impact all three regions. Then again, the north shore of Maui is different than East Maui, where the taking of water from the streams of East Maui is immensely important, while the various areas of Molokai have their own unique challenges. Affordable housing and economic opportunities are other significant issues. Only 1 percent of the Maui County operating budget, including CIPs, is directed toward the north shore and East Maui. The state does basically the same. An example is the Paia Bypass, now not scheduled for any funding until 2022, yet urgently needed! East Maui farmers are unable to follow their cultural practices for lack of water being diverted by a multi-national for-profit corporation, against the trust doctrine of our state constitution.
8. 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?
This has been our challenge for years! The largest segment of our state’s economy is tourism; the second is construction. On Oahu, the military is also extremely significant. We cannot keep on building and constructing new commercial spaces and high-end homes without it having a devastating and negative impact on our community. We are desperately in need of affordable accommodations; both rental and for purchase. Yet our elected officials pay lip service to this problem. We must immediately demand that no new gentleman’s estates, ag subdivisions, gated communities and high-end homes be constructed. A total statewide moratorium until the thousands of affordable units are constructed and provided for the residents of Hawaii.
This must occur as soon as reasonably possible. We must offer the development which each county needs and then seek out those who want to provide what is needed, not the other way around. We have been building on our coastline and this has done immeasurable damage: view planes lost, beach erosion and in some areas constant flooding. The poor planning in the past has resulted in our current situation. I would strongly supported developing affordable housing, which will employ thousands of jobs and expanding related infrastructure.
9. What should the Legislature do to improve police accountability?
We must thank those willing to put their lives on the line to serve and protect our communities. We have four separate county police departments, each with its own police commission, established by state law. We need to hold officers accountable and increase transparency where and when necessary. Protection of those who have been cited for an infraction needs to be curtailed and information made public.
Officers carry deadly weapons; it is time that the community is protected from those who have abused their responsibility. When an officer is reprimanded; there is no longer an excuse to keep this information confidential. Rumors of police corruption run rampant; the community needs to be assured if they are not true. HB 450 and SB 389 have been introduced in the state Legislature to alter the composition of these county commissions. This appears to be a progressive improvement and I will be an advocate for bringing these bills back in the next legislative session. There are also officers of the DLNR, who enforce laws and carry firearms, as well as the sheriff’s division under the State Department of Public Safety. They operate throughout the state, in conjunction with federal, state and county law enforcement personnel.
10. Hawaii is the fastest-aging state. What would you do to ensure we’re taking care of our kupuna?
The Executive Office on Aging, underneath the State Department of Health, is responsible for support services and care giving. I would contact governmental, private and non-profit agencies and meet with executives and individuals of these organizations to get input as to what is working, what is not and what needs to be done, plus any other ideas they may have. I would recommend expanding governmental programs, subsidies and the like where feasible. This must be done in coordination with federal, state and county services, to reduce duplication and wasteful expenditures.
There is not a “one size fits all” when dealing with people as they age. Some are capable of living in place; others have medical challenges. There are residents who have family which can assist them; others do not. We need to expand our medical facilities to provide for all that may need assistance. Others have special needs; perhaps they are disabled or infirmed. We have veterans and homeless among this growing demographic. We must provide food, shelter, medical assistance and educational programs. There will be some who are financially able to provide for themselves; others who need public assistance. Counties will need to review building codes and make adjustments where possible.
11. What would you do to improve Hawaii’s public education system?
The Department of Education needs a dramatic overhaul. There is too much bureaucracy, resulting in a bloated system. Divide into locally managed districts. Hawaii is the only state with this structure. This will not be the cure-all for the ills which exist; however, it is a beginning. I taught for many years; both as a college instructor in Washington, D.C., plus for the Hawaii Job Corps on Maui and as a substitute teacher for the DOE. I experienced firsthand dangerously overheated classrooms, the lack of respect and discipline of numerous students toward teachers, with little accountability by the administration. Creative innovations are forced to meander through the bureaucracy, naturally discouraging fresh input.
More money needs to go toward teachers and the physical plants and less to those not in the classrooms; the balance is fatally flawed. The bulk of the money, divided into the operating budget for administration, testing and school programs plus capital improvement, devoted to the physical plant, including new schools, landscaping, land acquisition and maintenance, comes from the general fund, plus federal, special and trust funds. Perhaps some percentage of property taxes could be allocated toward education in each county, used solely for capital expenditures.