Jennifer “Jen” Ruggles, a Hawaii County Councilwoman, said she wanted to “start a conversation” when she introduced a resolution this spring asking her eight colleagues to acknowledge there had been a history of government discrimination in her district, and to consider doing something about it.
What she got instead was a near unanimous rejection last month by the County Council of Resolution 205, the second and probably last time the measure will be heard.
Ruggles said she is disappointed, but that at least Big Island residents and their representatives talked publicly about what she says are serious problems in Puna and Kau.
Her District 5 covers the western portion of Puna, including Keaau, Mountain View, Glenwood, Hawaiian Acres, Opihikau, Kalapana, Kaimu, Kehena and the mauka area of Pahoa.
Kau is part of District 6 (Volcano Village, Hawaiian Orchid Island Estates, Pahala, Punaluu, Naalehu, South Point, Ocean View, Milolii, Hookena, Honaunau, Captain Cook and parts of of Kealakekua) and borders District 5.
“We don’t have access to clean and safe water, we have no wastewater sewage treatment in all of Puna in terms of commercially zoned land, we don’t have an infrastructure for basic business development, and there is not adequate internet and cell phone service,” said Ruggles. “My goal is to have an equitable level of services in terms of basic human needs.”
But her colleagues, while admitting that rural areas need help, found the resolution “unnecessarily divisive,” “unproductive” and “offensive,” the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported.
Some council members “appeared worried that discrimination was being used as the cause for limited public services of all types in Puna or Kau,” the paper reported.
In Ruggles’ view, the resolution, if passed, would “send a strong message” to the people making the decisions about the region, namely, county and state department heads.
“With this resolution I was hoping to get us all on the same page and set an example that they need to pay more attention,” said Ruggles, who lives in Mountain View and Fern Acres.
The resolution cited what Ruggles believes is clear supporting data, in particular a 2000 report from the federal Office of Civil Rights (reproduced below) that determined Hawaii County and the state Department Transportation had historically discriminated against low-income and Native Hawaiian communities in Puna and Kau.
The resolution asked the council to pledge commitment “to addressing the disparity and preventing discrimination against disadvantaged populations.”
The 1964 act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs that receive federal funding, while the 1994 order requires federal agencies to “to focus federal attention on the environmental and human health effects of federal actions on minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities.”
Ruggles said she now fears that Hawaii County could risk losing federal assistance.
Fast-Growing And Underserved
Puna, which by itself is about the size of Oahu, is the fastest-growing region on the Big Island. By some estimates, the area holds about one-fourth of the nearly 200,000 people who live in the county.
Yet, Puna and Kau, according to a recent survey from the state Department of Health, have the highest levels of poverty, households on food stamps, as compared with the island’s seven other districts. Per capita income is also the lowest.
Ruggles’ resolution notes that “substandard roads in Puna cause many residents to drive for more than an hour to reach the nearest hospital.”
Meanwhile, Puna is being served by the fewest police officers per capita in Hawaii County.
Ruggles complains that the district that represents Hilo, where the seat of government resides, benefits disproportionately when it comes to paying property taxes and receiving financial help from the county.
There is no question that stark differences exist in neighborhoods throughout the state. Often, race and class are the distinctions.
(Puna briefly held the national spotlight in 2014, when a delayed end to a U.S. Senate race brought lots of media attention. Same goes for Kilauea volcano’s near miss of Pahoa that soon followed.)
As with Resolution 205 in Hawaii County, suggestions of geographical discrimination sometimes make the news.
In 2004, for example, then Honolulu City Councilman Rod Tam suggested Koko Crater in well-off Hawaii Kai as a possible location for Oahu’s next landfill. The proposed sites at the time were Maili Quarry, Nanakuli, Makaiwa Gulch and the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill — all on the economically challenged Leeward Coast — and Kapaa Quarry in Kailua.
Thirteen years later, the landfill remains along the Leeward Coast, which is also home to a waste-to-energy plant and an industrial park.
But back to Puna and Jen Ruggles. The Keaau High School graduate is only 28 and in the first year of her first term, and already she is making noise.
Her professional background is in serving nonprofit groups. She’s working on a bachelor’s in business and economics at UH Hilo, but that’s on hold while she’s busy with council duties.
Ruggles says her constituents, which include some “Punatics” who testified in support of Resolution 205, were appreciative of her efforts.
“They tell me that it’s been too long that we haven’t addressed these obvious problems,” she said.
Office of Civil Rights Ruling On Puna and Kau Complaints, September 2000:
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