Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 11 primary, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Eileen Ohara, one of two candidates for Hawaii County Council District 4, covering Hawaiian Paradise Park, Hawaiian Beaches, Makai of Pahoa Town, Nanawale Estates, Leilani Estates, Pohoiki and Kapoho. The other candidate is Ashley Kierkiewicz.

Go to Civil Beat’s Elections Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Candidate for Hawaii County Council District 4

Eileen Ohara
Party Nonpartisan
Age 66
Occupation University faculty
Residence Lower Puna

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

Hawaii County Council District 4 (2016-18), chair, Environmental Management Committee, vice chair, Planning Committee and Committee on Agriculture, Water & Energy Sustainability; Hawaiian Shores Community Association, President; Hawaii County Cost of Government Commission; VisionKeeper, Envision Downtown Hilo 2025; Hawaii State Environmental Council – Commission to the Office of Environmental Quality Control, chair, Rules Committee.

1. The latest volcanic eruption demonstrates that some homes and infrastructure are particularly vulnerable to lava flow. Should this change Hawaii County’s approach to development, and if so, how?

Building back in areas that are highly susceptible to lava inundation could be conducted in a manner that makes use of current housing trends such as tiny homes, modular structures and buildings that are either mobile or can be easily de-constructed to be moved quickly.  The county should consider adopting an alternative and more flexible building code for those areas to ensure residents do not suffer major financial losses in the future.

The insurance market may not support conventional building in Lava Zone 1 which puts all current and future residents at risk resulting in further declines in property values. Reconstruction of county access roads needs to be carefully planned to protect public infrastructure expenditures, minimize future impacts of lava flows, and provide more connectivity in the Puna area to allow for better emergency evacuation planning.

Exchanging development rights from properties lost in the lava inundation by assigning those rights to properties in locations less prone to lava inundation is one idea to encourage growth in housing for homeowner use, as well as development of long-term rental housing inventory. The rental housing situation in Hawaii County is currently very limited and becoming less affordable in Hawaii County.

2. Are changes needed in how the County Council is run, and if so what are they?

County Council operations are modified through changes to the Council Rules adopted by a majority of the council. Additionally, the county convenes a Charter Commission every 10 years and will be appointing commissioners by July 1, 2018, to prepare amendments for consideration by voters in 2020. Also, the actions of the County Council are restricted by the Sunshine Law passed by the Legislature; although state-level legislators are not subject to this law.

The council modifies its rules by majority vote, so small changes to rules are not an issue. With regard to Charter changes, the new commission could choose to recommend changes to the council’s scope of actions. It might be beneficial for council to engage in the budget process earlier in the fiscal year than is currently the case.

Sunshine Law requires discourse on legislative matters occur in public, yet there are aspects that could be relaxed to allow more efficient functioning, while still maintaining transparency. The requirement that only two council members can attend public meetings makes it difficult for all council members to connect with the public to identify issues. The counties have been unsuccessful in lobbying the Legislature to modify this element of the Sunshine Law.

3. The Legislature has authorized Hawaii County to implement a 0.5 percent GET surcharge. Should the county do it, and if so, what should the additional revenue be spent on?

 The Hawaii County Council rejected the 0.5 percent GET surcharge but has approved a 0.25 percent surcharge. Since 2008, Hawaii County has cut its budget by 3 to 5 percent annually, resulting in deferred maintenance on facilities, roads, parks and large equipment. Over time, those cutbacks result in less efficient operations. 

In FY 2017-18, the mayor proposed property and fuel tax increases to balance the budget. The council modified the requests to limit impacts on the homeowner and agricultural property tax classes. The council also modified the fuel tax increase to reduce the harsh impacts of the proposal.  Thus, the budget was balanced but allowed no room for growth. 

Passing a 0.25 percent GET increase diversifies tax revenues. Because of the lava event on the Big Island, real property tax receipts will decline this year and may persist into the future. Fuel tax revenues are declining due to more fuel-efficient vehicles. The small GET surcharge will provide funds to improve/rebuild roadways, bridges, and implement the new mass transit master plan over the next 10 years.

4. 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?

As an environmental economist, there are many ways to consider the environmental consequences of development such that we consider the social and economic impacts and balance those interests to strive for sustainable development. While a standard cost benefit analysis can help to identify where development may cause an imbalance in terms of negative impacts on the environment, this type of analysis isn’t always done. 

With development projects involving government funding, Hawaii’s environmental laws require that an environmental assessment and/or and environmental impact statement be conducted. The state has a relatively robust system of environmental protection statutes in place that if properly conducted, help ensure that are sensitive ecosystems and limited environmental resources are protected.

It was good to finally see a ban on sunscreen containing oxybenzone and passage of pesticide restrictions that help protect the most sensitive populations – our keiki –at the state level this year. Here in Hawaii County, last year I received major support from the public to pass a polystyrene take-out container ban last year. Passing measures like these helps to ensure that the impacts of development and tourism do not cause further deterioration in our environmental resources.

5. What would you do, if anything, to strengthen police accountability?

This is an important issue, especially in Hawaii County, and the means for ensuring greater accountability may rest in proposing changes to the County Charter. Currently, the only body that holds the power to hire or fire our police chief is the Police Commission; a group of volunteers who the mayor selects and submits to County Council for confirmation. While the intent of this structured oversight might have sufficed previously, it doesn’t provide sufficient controls on the police to ensure the highest level of accountability and transparency. With the appointment of a new Charter Commission this year, there is an opportunity to propose more oversight to the Police Department, which in my opinion is very much needed.

6. What specific steps would you take to strengthen Hawaii’s lax lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure laws?

Lobbying laws are established by state statute and not something we can directly impact at the County Council. County Council members must abide by financial disclosure laws and are required to submit disclosure statements on a regular basis which are considered public documents. While this does not reveal all potential conflicts of interest, it does provide information that the public can scrutinize and evaluate.

I have, however, introduced a bill proposing a change to our county’s Ethics Code to ensure that the public gets accurate and truthful information when interacting with the county government and agencies. Too many complaints are lodged with my office regarding problems obtaining information on code requirements and administrative rules; information which should be presented in an accurate and uniform manner to all residents of the county.

7. Would you support eliminating Hawaii’s high fees for access to public records when the request is in the public interest?

I would support that, provided that the public interest requirement is well defined and any request clearly articulates the public purpose in a manner that makes it easy to determine that it fits the definition.

8. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?

The county provides reasonable access to its council members with services that include remote videoconferencing for constituents to provide testimony at any of the committee or council meetings. There are now six locations on the island where the public can testify, which is important given the size of the island. Further, agendas are published six days in advance, unlike the Legislature where you may only have 72 hours’ notice on a hearing.

 In addition, my office produces a newsletter quarterly and I am the only council member with a link to a website from the County Council’s webpage where I provide an archive of newsletters, video news stories and other related media to acquaint the public with the work I’m doing at council. I also make use of Facebook and other social media to stay in touch with constituents and to hear their concerns. In my first term, I have held six town halls in just over 18 months.

9. What more should Hawaii County be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?

The county has already participated in studies to evaluate the impacts of climate change on our marine resources and coastal development.  Last year, I co-hosted with the Sierra Club three forums on the impacts of climate change and tourism on our ocean resources, which were well attended by the public.  Also, as tourism remains our main economic driver, the impacts from that industry also need to be taken into consideration.  Creating awareness of some of the contributing factors that we can modify is a first step in developing policy to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

While we’ve taken some small steps by banning Styrofoam containers and sunscreen containing oxybenzone, there are larger concerns that we need to consider with the planning of public infrastructure from harbors and roadways, to locations for residential and commercial developments. This will occur through changes in code that can be considered as we also deal with including greater flexibility in building codes to allow for alternative structures and innovative methods of dealing with wastewater and electrical generation.

10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?

There is no question that the most pressing issue in my district is the volcanic eruption that has now taken nearly 800 structures and displaced thousands of households. This eruption has caused massive damage to the public infrastructure, delivered water sources and the electric grid. The impacts on agriculture extend beyond my district, given the summit explosions have spread ash and gases throughout the island negatively impacting nearly all types of agriculture. Businesses in Pahoa and in the district have shut down, we’ve lost a substantial number of short-term vacation rentals which supported considerable employment in the district, and our commercial fishery at Pohoiki is no longer accessible.

I introduced and passed a resolution at council calling on the state to convene a special session of the Legislature to address our ongoing disaster. .

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