PUNA, Hawaii Island — As if volcano-stricken Puna doesn’t have enough drama already, it may have the two most intriguing County Council races on the island.
Most of Puna lies in Hawaii County Districts 4 and 5. District 4 lies generally north of state Highway 130, the Keaau-Pahoa Road. District 5 lies south of that road. District 5’s incumbent council member, Jennifer Ruggles, recently decided not to run for reelection for personal reasons, though her name remains on the ballot — leaving voters scrambling to learn about two relatively unknown newcomers.
North of the road — where all the lava is currently flowing — incumbent Eileen Ohara faces a stiff challenge from Ashley Kierkiewicz, who has heavy union backing and a reputation from her work on lava relief.
Here’s a rundown on the District 4 race (a look at District 5 will be published Thursday):
Ohara’s past job credentials include stints as a college teacher, a county planner, County Recycling Coordinator and an energy expert of Hawaii Electric Light Company. Among her biggest campaign contributors are the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which gave her $1,500, and State Sen. Russell Ruderman, who also owns the Island Naturals health food chain, who chipped in $1,200 so far.
Both she and her opponent, Kierkiewicz, can point to solid records of community service during the lava crisis. Ohara has been all over her district, working to connect the community with various government authorities and nonprofit agencies.
When she found out that the Humane Society, for instance, which was doing animal rescues in accessible areas, had not contacted the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for help, she put the groups in touch; the ASPCA ended up coordinating rescues of pets and livestock in areas cut off by the lava and transporting them to the Humane Society’s Puna shelter.
She’s organized or hosted community meetings such as a forum on insurance issues for lava victims and a June 30 Town Hall with U. S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Ruderman and state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura. She also takes credit for a resolution passed by the Legislature calling for a special session to consider lava issues.
She’s working with government agencies to find land for displaced farmers and ranchers. She’s still seeking land, for instance, that would be suitable for papaya farmers, whose crop can’t grow well on pahoehoe flows or in rainy Hamakua.
She’s also looking for ways to help existing businesses hurt by the tourism slump, whether they were covered with lava or not. She opposes an upcoming council bill that would severely regulate short-term rentals on ag- and single-family-zoned land, for instance, which she calls a “punch to the stomach” for Puna, where most of those rentals are located.
Large numbers of those rentals, often mom-and-pop operations, were taken by the lava; others were shut down for weeks during the early stages of the lava crisis.
“Any given short term vacation rental creates about five short-term jobs,” she said.
Another thorny question is where to put new or replacement housing. She doesn’t think a moratorium on all building in lands possibly threatened by lava is “realistic.” But she’s open to new variations on the county building code that would encourage, for instance, modular homes that could be divided into sections and transported away if threatened.
For more on Ohara’s positions, see her Civil Beat’s Candidate Q&A here.
Ashley Kierkewicz has never held elected office. But she’s hardly an outsider. She’s a former assistant to the late Sen. Daniel Akaka and a senior account executive at Hastings and Pleadwell, one of the biggest public relations firms in the state. She has a seat on the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board, and has endorsements from the ILWU, UPW, Operating Engineers, SHOPO and the Hawaii Firefighters Association.
As of her first campaign spending support, her only contributor of over $500 was Hawaii Operating Engineers Industry Stabilization Fund, which donated $1,000. All told, she had raised $4,400, about $1,000 less than Ohara.
“I help people for a living,” she said. “I can easily pick up the phone and ask them to work with me to help Puna.”
But those connections could also pose problems. Hastings and Pleadwell has 104 current, past and occasional or inactive clients, from nonprofits to large corporations. They include firms that do active business with the government, such as Bowers and Kubota, which built the Hilo Courthouse and other public buildings, and Group 70, an architectural firm that often does environmental impact statements.
Kierkiewicz said she “absolutely will recuse myself” if she’s elected and a conflict of interest appears with one of those firms.
She’s built up some solid street creds as one of the organizers of Pu’uhonua O Puna, aka “The Hub,” the volunteer organization that sprang up to deliver supplies, services, information and hot meals to lava refugees.
“I’m a big proponent of public-private partnership,” she said.
That term has often been linked with large corporations taking over formerly public services, from prisons to to hurricane relief. But Kierkiewicz and her partners seem to have made it work in a positive way at the Hub, where government agencies, nonprofits, volunteers and corporate donors all coordinate their lava relief efforts.
Like Ohara, she’s working on the housing problem.
“Puuhonua O Puna is working with the county on an emergency housing village,” she said. “The idea is to create 24 units that are big enough for a family to reside in.”
Kierkiewicz noted that a county official had suggested that it needed to build out and develop “emergency villages.” But, she said, “the county is not in the business of building and managing housing, which is why public-private partnerships such as what the faith groups and Puuhonua o Puna are doing is critical to the transitional housing piece.”
The county, she said, is considering “whether to condemn that property or allow rebuilding and if so, how soon.”
Another big question is how and where to put new jobs. Even before the eruption, residents in Puna’s many substandard subdivisions often had to commute to Hilo or even to Kona or Kohala.
One solution, Kierkiewicz said, is to build small commercial hubs in those subdivisions themselves. To build these hubs, she wants to “attract folks with resources and capital and streamline the permitting/building process to make the investment more appealing.”
Kierkiewicz said she’s an advocate of “smart development.” While growth is necessary, she said, “We can’t just make decisions based on the dollars anymore. We need to weigh the costs and benefits to the environment, to culture, to society.”
For more on Kierkiewicz’s positions, see her Civil Beat’s Candidate Q&A here.
Coming Thursday: A look at the Hawaii County Council District 5 race, where the abrupt withdrawal of Councilwoman Jen Ruggles opens the field to two newcomers.
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?