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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 Gene Ward, Republican candidate for the state House, District 17, which includes Hawaiʻi Kai and Kalama Valley. There is one other candidate, Democrat Karlen Ross.
Name: Rep. Gene Ward
Office seeking: State House, District 17
Occupation: State representative and small businessman/entrepreneur trainer
Community organizations/prior offices held: Peace Corps, country, director, East Timor; Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board, chair transportation; East-West Center, Board of Governors; Rotary International, member
Place of residence: Hawaii Kai
Campaign website: www.gene-ward.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?
The way the Legislature handles conflicts of interest should be changed; the law is written so broadly that almost any perceived conflict is technically OK. The law needs to be tightened up and enforced.
The Legislature needs more transparency. That is, it should let the public know about legislative hearings on a much more timely basis, and have status of bills updated more quickly.
There should be no closed doors at the Capitol and all hearings and floor sessions should be recorded and streamed live to the public.Presently the speaker or committee chairs pick and choose what the public can see and they tend to shy away from controversial or important issues they want to downplay, but the bottom line is that Hawaii should have its own C-SPAN-like coverage, and make the Legislature a live broadcast whenever in session so the public can see what’s going on at all times.
There should be initiative, referendum, and recall and term limits for more accountability of legislators and their responsiveness to their constituents.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizen’s initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Of course I support it and always have. It was one of the first bills I introduced consistently as a freshman and many times thereafter. When a state of imbalance reaches a super-majority like it is today in Hawaii, direct initiative from the citizens is needed more than ever. However, initiative is frightening to the present leadership, and grassroots democracy becomes limited in scope.
The reality is that most Democrats in leadership positions see this as interference with their supreme authority and total control of legislation. The record shows that even a constitutional convention that is required to be called for every 10 years by our constitution is not favored by the party in power because it might upset the present balance of power and even out the skewed political playing field.
3. Hawaii has long been dominated by the Democratic Party establishment. Should this change, and if so, how?
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton. The Democrats are thus making the same mistakes the Republicans made when they had absolute power over the politics and economy of the islands — and it is not a good governance model for the people of Hawaii. The American system of governance is based on checks and balances and accountability by having many branches of government and keeping them separate so each can keep the other in check. It is the same with political parties, however, when one party, the Republicans, hold only eight of 76 seats in the Legislature in 2016 because of the sins of their forefathers in Hawaii, bad government and corruption inevitably result.
The early Republicans in Hawaii had all the power. Now the Democrats have all the power. Our brand of politics has made us a state that is perpetually out of balance and the people of Hawaii suffer from it with a high cost of living, marginal economic growth, high taxes and costly government, and an educational system that leaves a lot to be desired. A reasonably balanced two-party system would greatly benefit all the people of Hawaii.
4. What specific steps would you take to strengthen Hawaii’s lax lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure laws?
Enforcement is the key along with closing the loopholes in these laws. As noted earlier, the conflict of interest laws are greatly in need of being rewritten as well as needing a big uptick in enforcement. There has been some noteworthy progress in this direction however. Case in point is that under the “Kondo administration” when Les Kondo was the executive director of the State Ethics Commission, the ethics laws of Hawaii were beginning to be enforced with vigor and certainty. These strict measures raised the ire of some legislative leaders of the House and Mr. Kondo is now no longer working for the State Ethics Commission. Mr. Kondo was promoted out of the way and is now the state auditor that oversees the departments of the executive branch and is rather far away from legislative oversight.
The simple answer to the question is to bring back Mr. Kondo as the head of the Ethics Commission, or put someone in that position with the same DNA as Mr. Kondo. The point here is that history of ethics in the state of Hawaii (and recently in the City and County of Honolulu) is biography.
5. Would you support eliminating Hawaii’s high fees for access to public records when the request is in the public interest?
Yes, as long as it isn’t taken advantage of and not implemented incorrectly. Hawaii and the federal government have become a place where people go just to get stuff and this is hurting the self-reliance and confidence of our people.
On the other hand, Civil Beat and the Star-Advertiser and others are looking for information and justice without paying an arm and a leg for information from the government. Charging exorbitant fees for copying, for example, is government’s way of shutting down access to information by making it largely unaffordable by the small guy, and more difficult, though affordable for the big guys who are conducting investigations.
So yes, let’s lower the fees and get rid of the $1 to $10 per copy rules, but let’s make government more accessible and transparent in the process.
6. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
Let me give a few personal examples. I meet with my constituents every first Tuesday of the month in Zippy’s (Koko Marina) at a “Coffee Summit,” and on the first Thursday of every month I have a “Beer Summit” with constituents at Kona Brewery. I give out my cell phone number and have people in my district call me directly.
I also conduct issue-based town hall meetings as another method of listening to what constituents have to say about such important issues as preventing Maunalua Bay from becoming an ocean cemetery; keeping Koko Crater stables open and with a long-term lease; keeping the Great Lawn as an open space; keeping our farmers in Kailua Valley and keeping all development off the Ka Iwi coast.
More accountability by legislators can also be increased by having all of our votes in hearings and floor sessions video-recorded such as C-SPAN does at the national level.
7. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
We have macro and micro issues facing Hawaii Kai. Fiscal issues have always been a big concern for my district and most residents do not want increased taxes, particularly for the rail. What I will do is to continue to vote against tax increases and an extension of the GET for the rail.
My district is also growing increasingly concerned about the growing homeless population that has migrated to Hawaii Kai from the urban core of Honolulu. As stated earlier, I am working for my community to prevent Maunalua Bay from becoming an ocean cemetery; keeping Koko Crater stables open and with a long-term lease; keeping the Great Lawn as an open space; keeping our farmers in Kamilonui Valley and keeping all development off the Ka Iwi coast, to name a few.
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?
Our environment is our economy and our economy is our environment; by taking care of one, we take care of the other.
However, the problem is that Hawaii has an identity crisis; sometimes we think we’re Los Angeles and build houses and subdivisions on agricultural lands that should never be touched. Then sometimes we think we’re Hong Kong and start building high-density skyscrapers. We have never reached a consensus of what the island should look like and value the most. The conflict and reality is that we need to protect our open space and agriculture lands while at the same time meeting the 6,000 or so new housing units we need each year just to keep up with population growth.
Regarding growing the economy under these circumstances, the best way to grow is to stress entrepreneurship and small business development. This is the quickest and best way to create new development and new jobs without compromising the environment and selling much of our island to outside development interests.
9. What should the Legislature do to improve police accountability?
As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Transparency is thus key to improving police accountability through re-structuring reporting requirements and access by the media or public. There should also be more outreach efforts in our communities such as the present effort to promote “Coffee with a Cop,” wherein police officers of a certain district sit down with residents of the area at a McDonald’s and have a friendly conversation about problems in the district. The more the police can mix with their community the more effective they have been found to be on the beat.
Complaints against police officers are presently investigated by the Honolulu Police Commission, HPD’s Professional Standards Office or Human Resources Division depending upon the circumstances. These procedures could be reviewed and rewritten for more transparency and reporting, however I believe that Hawaii should avoid any mainland or DOJ divisive rhetoric that is going on in many parts of our country. he police are not the enemy, as many cities are making them out to be. Ideally, we should thank the police as often as we thank those serving in our military.
10. Hawaii is the fastest-aging state. What would you do to ensure we’re taking care of our kupuna?
First we need to keep the bar high and hold on to the record of having the longest living kupuna in the nation. One key way of doing this is to keep them economically sound and fit by being mindful that most are living on a fixed income and we should avoid increasing taxes as well as (and as I have pledged to never do this) never to tax pensions of our retired seniors and kupuna (as was proposed by a former governor and a few legislators a few years ago).
Secondly, we need to keep pace with the services provided through Kupuna Care by adequately funding the Executive Office of Aging, which I have always voted for.
Thirdly, we need to be mindful of home care and long term care needs of our elderly. For example, I have introduced legislation to provide family caretakers with a tax break for assisting their family members or relatives who cannot afford a professional caregiver.
Lastly, I would like to see an incentive program for employers to hire more elderly persons still interested in working.
11. What would you do to improve Hawaii’s public education system?
Our schools should not be over-crowded. Case in point: a high school should not be allowed to accept students or expand to three times its capacity – such as being tolerated at Campbell High School today. Quality of education and discipline faces too many challenges when basic school size and new school planning is not paid attention to.
Our schools should be given more local control and more autonomy. The DOE bureaucracy is renowned for its size, complexity, and cost. Resources and personnel need to be shifted from the DOE bureaucracy to the school level/classroom level and even out the playing field. Principals and teachers are closest to the students and to the students’ parents and know better than middle-level DOE outsiders what is the best use of scarce human and financial resources.
Our classrooms should be student-centric rather than test-centric. In a recent national survey of parents and what they expected from the public school system, their answer was as simple as it was astounding. They said they simply wanted their children “to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.” And that was it. We have learned enough lessons from mistakes in No Child Left Behind and Common Core to get back to basics and successfully teach our kids.