Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 general election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Don Couch, a candidate for the Maui County Council’s South Maui District. There is other candidate, Kelly King.
Name: Don Couch
Office seeking: Maui County Council, South Maui District
Occupation: County Council member, South Maui
Community organizations/prior offices held: Executive assistant to Mayor Alan Arakawa; deputy director of planning, Maui County; chair, Maui County Board of Ethics; board member, Boys & Girls Clubs of Maui, board member, Akaku Maui Community Media
Age as of Aug. 13, 2016: 60
Place of residence: Kihei
Campaign website: www.doncouch.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?
Elected officials can be more responsive and accountable to the community by communicating with everyone that contacts our offices. My staff and I consistently review email and correspondence to ensure every question or inquiry is provided a response.
I do not see a major need for the types of changes being proposed. The Maui County Council is a legislature; however, state law treats it like an administrative board. Lawmakers need more latitude to communicate with their colleagues than current law provides, because a lot of what makes legislatures tick is compromise.
2. Should your county implement a 0.5 percent GET surcharge? If so, for what purpose?
Our community will not raise the GET. There are, of course, lots of projects and needs that we could address with that money, even if it is limited to transportation issues. However government needs to live within its means. A GET increase hurts those of the bottom levels of society the most, and those folks are already hurting enough.
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 state Department of Economic Development and Tourism tells us we need to be building 1,400 new homes a year to just accommodate our natural growth – our kids having kids. We are actually building around 300 a year. I will support housing, especially if it is aimed at our working families. Some folks will grumble about the new housing, but I bet that they already have their homes. We have too many families living multi-generational. We have too many folks without any housing. We have to get real about building homes our people can afford.
I concur that new development can help to grow the economy, however, our environment also drives our economy. With the loss of large agricultural businesses in the County of Maui, the tourism and the visitor industry is our economy. So it is essential that we preserve our marine, cultural and land environment which draws visitors to our islands.
Sustainable environment and growth can only be achieved through the integration of policies that connect or integrate the environment, the economy and the society. This means in assessing environmental policies, the long-term impact should be viewed from all three perspectives; the environment, the society and the economy.
4. What would you do to strengthen police accountability?
I have no issues with Maui County police accountability.
5. What specific steps would you take to strengthen Hawaii’s lax lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure laws?
As the former chairman of the County Board of Ethics, I know that our ethics system could use more work. From the County Council level, the most effect we can have is to lobby the state Legislature through the state Hawaii Association of Counties for reform measures, because the levers that make those reforms happen are at the state legislative level, not at the Council.
6. Would you support eliminating Hawaii’s high fees for access to public records when the request is in the public interest?
7. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
We have done some interesting things in Maui County. For instance, we have a three-island county. In recent years, because of the state of the airline services from those islands, it was next to impossible for Molokai and Lanai residents to come to our Council meetings to testify. So we set up a telephone system that allows residents to phone in their testimony from our district offices on Molokai, Lanai and in Hana.
During the GMO debate two years ago, we literally had hundreds of testifiers by phone. That was improved “communications.” However, sometimes residents said a lawmaker is not listening when they actually heard but did not agree with a particular voter’s mana’o. It is literally impossible for a lawmaker to agree with everyone who speaks to them. Sometimes half of the room is going one way and the other half is going in the other. I listen to all equally. Who I agree with is another story.
8. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Undoubtedly, the housing crisis is the most pressing issue facing our community. As your publication has well documented, the cost of housing has shot through the roof while the average resident’s income has remained stagnant for the last decade. Those at or below 80 percent of area medium income struggle to find shelter they can afford. One-third of our population is paying 50 percent or more of their income on rent.
It takes 10 years to entitle a piece of agriculturally zoned land for housing development in Hawaii. It takes two years in most mainland communities. Meanwhile, economists tell us that the essential cause of our housing crisis is supply. There is not enough, and there won’t be enough until government comes to grips with this reality.
The one thing government can do is to get out of the way. Gov. David Ige and Mayor Alan Arakawa have both said as much. And I agree. We either start building homes our people can afford, or this crisis is only going to get worse.