LIHUE, Kauai — Drowned out by the political cacophony of 2018 — the noise coming from dozens of races at the state and federal levels — Kauai County will stage its most consequential local election in at least a generation.
• Mayor Bernard Carvalho is terming out after 10 years in office, the longest-serving mayor in county history. For a variety of reasons, one of them perhaps Carvalho’s own campaign for lieutenant governor, he has not anointed a potential successor, leaving the mayor’s race wide open.
There are six candidates, three of whom seem to have a real shot and are also terming out or stepping down from the County Council.
• With a change in top leadership guaranteed, administrators are already jockeying in anticipation of a broad management shakeup once a new mayor takes office.
• There will be a nearly unprecedented three open seats on the council, guaranteeing new political blood. That’s complicated by the fact that Kauai is the only county council in the state without districts, forcing candidates to attract attention islandwide, without the crutch of a hyper-local constituency.
In all, 24 people are running for the council — the largest field ever. It includes a number of newcomers, but with so much unknown about them, the mere size of the field has scared the Chamber of Commerce off from even trying to stage debates. As a result, forums staged by a community group and one using a kind of speed dating format will be the only live performance availability.
• The long-serving police and fire chiefs are both retiring. Successors will be chosen by commissions whose members are appointed by the mayor, but it’s not clear if replacements will be selected before the election. Even if they are, a new mayor will inherit a public safety structure whose selection he or she had no role in.
• A charter amendment on the ballot would repeal county term limits. Though the conventional wisdom is it won’t pass, if it should, it could invest a newly constituted council with advantages of incumbency not seen on the island since at least 2006.
As if those election developments weren’t enough, a new county general plan has been adopted, but the long process of translating it into zoning and related ordinances has not begun in earnest.
In all, Kauai County may be in for a significant shift in how it governs itself.
“I think this would be the biggest election yet” on Kauai, said Dickie Chang, a local cable television personality who served two terms on the council himself and ran one other time unsuccessfully.
Chang thinks the fact that the three strongest mayoral candidates —Derek Kawakami, Mel Rapozo and JoAnn Yukimura — have served on the council presents an opportunity for coordinated government, but it’s far from certain that’s what an election like this will bring.
There been tension over the years between the council and Carvalho, but that could ease with the likely ascension of a current council member.
“At least the mayoral candidates know the council,” Chang said. “What they need to do is say, ‘I’m the mayor; you’re the council and we need to put all jealousies and politics aside.’ On a small island like Kauai, there’s no reason we can’t move forward.”
Chang and others believe that, despite the fact that Kauai voters have delivered pathetic turnout numbers repeatedly over the past several election cycles, a new breed of voter is emerging that will actually try to find out something about the candidates and not vote just on the basis of name recognition, family affiliation and circles of acquaintances.
“I think it’s going to be a very exciting year,” Chang said.
Beth Tokioka, a former chief of staff to Carvalho and a veteran of county government, is not so sanguine.
“It may, yet again, come down to yard signs, bumper stickers and banners,” Tokioka said.
And don’t forget sign-waving. With the county council field so large, she said, “the voter has to invest a whole lot of time and energy” to make informed choices. She suspects many will not rise to the challenge.
Rep. Nadine Nakamura, one of Kauai’s three members in the state House of Representatives, has the luxury of running unopposed. So she can reflect on a race unfolding around her but in which she is not at risk.
The change in the mayor’s office and what will, no matter what, be a dramatic infusion of new blood on the council, Nakamura said, “is creating a huge turnover when you consider you need four votes to make a decision, having three open seats makes a major difference.”
New faces in the mayor’s office and on the council, together with the potential for a major administrative shakeup, she said, mean that “whoever gets elected will bring their own style, values and vision for our island, so I think major change is inevitable.”
Jan TenBruggencate, a longtime news reporter and influential member of the community who sits on powerful boards including that of the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative, is a bit more cynical.
“We’ve got this strange thing,” he said. “Many of the candidates for County Council have never even attended a council meeting. They don’t have a clear understanding of what a council member does. They don’t understand that the council has nothing to do with the school system or veterans affairs and it simply can’t fix state highways.
“It leaves one wondering what kind of council we’re going to get.”
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