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Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 primary election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Zuri Aki, a Democratic candidate for the state House, District 36, which includes Mililani Mauka and Mililani. There are two other candidates, including Aki’s Democratic primary opponent, Marilyn Lee, and Republican Beth Fukumoto Chang.
Name: Zuri Aki
Office seeking: House of Representatives District 36
Occupation: Curriculum developer
Community organizations/prior offices held: The Aina Project; Lions Club International; former Honolulu Civil Beat columnist
Age as of Aug. 13, 2016: 34
Place of residence: Mililani
Campaign website: http://www.zforhawaii.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?
At this time, I am an outsider looking in. By that, I mean I am a life-long resident of the State of Hawaii, with very limited legislative experience – never working as a legislator. My perspective is similar to the great many others who see the end product, whether agreeable or not, of a running Legislature without being privy to its inner workings.
From my experience, I understand that lobbyists play a major role in the development of legislation – special interests that do not always align with public interests. In my opinion, one example of this was with HB2501, regarding Alexander & Baldwin’s near-exclusive consumption of East Maui’s stream water. HB2501 was passed and signed into law by Gov. David Ige – this came in the wake of large public protests and organization against HB2501.
Perhaps Hawaii needs stricter regulation of lobbying practices, which has the capacity to balance the weight of public and special interests. I would imagine a legislator might be inclined to better hear public outcries, when they are not so dependent on the financial (and other) support of certain special interests.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizen’s initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes, I would. Law is meant to serve the public and the public should have a process to bring forth and vote upon an issue that addresses its interests.
A concern of mine, however, is with the efficiency and effectiveness of a citizen’s initiative process in a state where we have an abysmal (30 percent) voter turnout. If the idea behind a citizen’s initiative process is to determine the sentiment of the majority of voting citizens, then that idea is not realized with only a third of the population’s participation.
Another concern of mine is that a citizen’s initiative process is not free from special interest manipulation. We see this at smaller administrative levels where wealthy land developers are able to fund citizen groups that represent its interest.
My final concern is informed consent. One of the major issues coming out of the Brexit debate is voter remorse. Representative democracy, ideally, holds that a representative is informed and can make decisions for their constituents, where those constituents may not be as familiar with a particular issue to make the best decision on the matter.
3. Hawaii has long been dominated by the Democratic Party establishment. Should this change, and if so, how?
Prior to the Democratic Party’s dominance was the Republican Party’s dominance. Prior to that, various other political parties dominated the Hawaiian Kingdom government. We find strength in similar interests and rally together for them. Perhaps that is just human nature. Currently, it seems like the majority are aligned with Democratic Party values. I don’t see how such a thing can be changed without abolishing a party system – which I do not advocate.
I think it needs to be said that, while the Democratic Party is currently the dominant party, its values are not always being mainstreamed by its party members in public office. For example, the dominant two-party system essentially forces a more Green Party-minded or Libertarian Party-minded person to choose either Democratic or Republican in order to be effective.
The dominant two-party system, over time, has showed that we can have both liberals and conservatives in the Democratic Party – we can also have a Republican Party that harshly criticizes the minority leader for being a Republican In Name Only because that legislator tends to vote like a Democrat.
I do not think the party system should change.
4. What specific steps would you take to strengthen Hawaii’s lax lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure laws?
Government needs to be open and responsible. I believe there just needs to be greater transparency, more strict and improved regulation of these activities and greater enforcement of financial disclosure laws.
One of the current issues involving lobbying and financial disclosures is in the actual date of disclosure. Special interest groups have a substantial amount of time to lobby, influence, and have legislation passed before they are required to disclose their lobbying activities. In essence, legislation can be bought and sold before the public is even aware that a special interest railroaded an idea through under the guise of public interest. Obviously, this is incredibly problematic and the fact that lobbying reform just hasn’t taken hold in our Legislature lends itself to speculation concerning the degree to which lobbying has actually influenced/benefited our elected officials.
5. Would you support eliminating Hawaii’s high fees for access to public records when the request is in the public interest?
If the high fee is meant to discourage people from accessing public records, or high volumes of public records, then yes, I would support eliminating the high fees. However, if the high fee is simply administrative/maintenance (taking into consideration the cost of someone searching for the records, compiling them, and submitting them to the person requesting), then no, I would not support eliminating the high fee – however, I would certainly look to ways we can reduce the cost of those fees.
6. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
I, personally, would be more informative, more transparent, more accessible and devote more time (beyond “office hours”) to hearing what the people have to say.
By more informative and more transparent, I mean that I would constantly provide updates regarding both legislative issues and community issues and exactly what I am doing to address them. In my opinion, my current representative has not been effective here.
In my opinion, the problem just isn’t with elected officials not hearing voters. Some elected officials keep the people in the dark, so the people aren’t provided with enough information to voice their concern over a particular issue that may be of interest to them. Again, I don’t see much coming from my current representative until it’s time for an election.
Law and policy affect us no matter the time of the day. As an elected official, I would make more time available for the people. I would put more time into understanding an issue, educating the public about it, and making time to engage the people – face-to-face if need be – where it is most accessible for them.
7. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
I have lived in Mililani my entire life and I am the third generation to do so. In scope, D-36 is a relatively young place and our most pressing issues are those faced on a macro level – shared by other communities throughout Hawaii.
There are over 18,000 housing units in D-36 – households that bear the burden of paying nearly triple the national average cost of electricity, which can mean as much as $7,000 per year in added electricity cost. If the Mililani community were to explore the idea of a co-op utility model and micro-grid electrical system, we could find a solution that could save homeowners thousands of dollars a year. This is money saved for things that greatly contribute to the quality of a person’s life.
As a lifelong resident of Mililani, I have spent the vast majority of my life in long commutes for school and work. If school and work were closer to home, I would have saved tens of thousands of dollars on gas, and many countless hours of my life for other activities. To address this issue, I would look at finding ways to bring both school, work and other opportunities closer to home.
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?
There is a wealth of information regarding sustainable best practices that the State of Hawaii should take into consideration — as well as emerging innovative ideas coming from across the world.
The Hawaiian Islands are one of the most isolated archipelagos in the world. Our environment is unique and growing human impact has made us the endangered species capital of the world. Our uniqueness requires development practices that are also unique. One of my greatest criticisms of our modern societal progression is that we employ a “continental mentality” to an island environment. When we have a problem, our experts and elected officials turn to what is being done on the continent for solutions.
Our isolation and uniqueness requires us to create unique solutions. Sustainable development would urge us to utilize building materials that are not only sustainably sourced, but also economically sustainable – materials that we can grow here in Hawaii (like hemp) for all-around reduced cost. That, in turn requires sectors to change its long-held practices, though at great cost. The government could bear the burden of that cost, but it’s going to require the overwhelming support from the general public. Something an elected official, alone, could not do.
9. What should the Legislature do to improve police accountability?
Police officers have a difficult job – that needs to be said. They engage, on a daily basis, with parts of society that most of us are protected from. I don’t live in a peaceful little bubble, but I cannot begin to imagine the kind of emotional and psychological strain that police officers must endure each day. Obviously, some have the capacity to endure, while others do not – be it a product of their job or their nature.
Be that as it may, the duty of a police officer is one that requires a high level of accountability – because we trust police officers to “serve and protect.” We trust that police officers will put our safety before their personal interests and be that shining light at the end of the darkest of tunnels. What we trust may be unreasonable, but police officers are supposed to be our superheroes.
It’s a high degree of trust that should be afforded a high degree of care. As a result, breaching that trust should face more serious consequences – as punitive and to discourage violative practices.
10. Hawaii is the fastest-aging state. What would you do to ensure we’re taking care of our kupuna?
I would call for the establishment of an administrative agency with the purpose of addressing the needs/care of our kupuna. In addition to that, I would advocate the establishment of programs/services that better serve our kupuna in their daily lives – things that expand beyond protecting/improving retirement benefits.
While in high school, I had moved in with my ailing grandmother to help her with her day-to-day activities. She was very arthritic and could barely feed herself. We didn’t have the means to hire a personal care assistant, and why would we? She had a perfectly capable grandson. I would joke with her that I was her personal concierge service. While my grandmother had me, this is not the case for every kupuna.
These experiences of mine have showed me that our kupuna need our help – sometimes with things as simple to us as eating or changing a tire. Maybe we do need a “concierge” service for our kupuna, where young folks can be employed as state workers and find greater value in our kupuna – from carrying groceries to assisting with health-care providers, the sky is the limit with such an idea. And I would gladly fly this one to the limit.
11. What would you do to improve Hawaii’s public education system?
I would increase funding, convince the public to see the value in an improved public education system and own up to the public by requiring greater oversight and transparency of DOE spending, while stoking the burning embers beneath the DOE such that the ensuing bonfire will result in better prepared students for a bright new future.
Legislators did not take to the idea of a 1 percent General Excise Tax increase attached to the 2016 omnibus bill (“The Schools Our Keiki Deserve”). If we made better promises for our children’s futures and show that we can deliver on them, would we feel better about a 1 percent increase for the education of our children? I’d like to explore that idea.
I see “improving Hawaii’s public education system” as including the need to establish new economic sectors for new opportunities for our children. There should also be greater inter-sector involvement. One example is farms-to-schools programs that have successfully been adopted all over the world. I don’t remember the last time I ate public school lunch, but we should be locally and responsibly sourcing our food, which bolsters our own agricultural sector.