WEST HAWAII, Hawaii Island — Voters here have something no one else on the Big Island does this election season — a choice to make in a County Council race.
While the other council races were decided in the primary, four candidates ran to replace Dru Kanuha, who vacated his District 7 seat to run for the state Senate, and no one received a majority of votes.
Kelly Drysdale and Rebecca Shute Villegas were the top vote-getters and advanced to a runoff to represent Kona Scenic Subdivision, Kainaliu, Honalo, Keauhou, Kahaluu, Holualoa, Kona Hillcrest, Pualani Estates, Sunset View, Kuakini Heights, Kona Vistas, Alii Heights, Kona Industrial and Lono Kona and a portion of Kealakekua.
Both have backgrounds in business and credentials as community activists.
Drysdale, 59, is the daughter of Baseball Hall-of-Famer Don Drysdale. She first came to the island to help manage her parent’s Kona restaurants, Don Drysdale’s Club 53 and Drysdale’s Two, where, she says, “I learned immeasurable amounts of information about the people of Hawaii and the business conditions in Hawaii.”
She currently works for Kona Coffee & Tea Company as director of logistics. She’s been active in community issues for years.
“I was continually sending my ideas to council people,” she says. “I decided, why not apply for the job myself?”
Villegas, 44, also brings years of business experience and public service to her candidacy. She was marketing manager for four years at Kona Brewing Company and was heavily involved in Public Access Shoreline Hawaii, which won a landmark 1993 case that helped to preserve the rights of local residents to access beaches and shoreline areas. She is president of the Kohanaiki Ohana, an environmental stewardship organization that, among other things, runs the annual Keiki Surf for the Earth surfing tournament and beach cleanup.
Her Facebook page lists endorsements from the statewide police and firefighter unions, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the Sierra Club, Hawaii Pono Initiative, Planned Parenthood, and the Hawaii Tourism and Lodging Association.
Both candidates say they’ve relied on grassroots fundraising and their own pockets — Villegas says that her union endorsements didn’t come with donations, and Drysdale says her financing came from “friends and family, period. I have not sought endorsements, because I do not want to be beholden to anyone but my constituents.”
Both also have similar views on issues such as energy independence and environmental protection.
Two of the biggest concerns in the district are related: homelessness and the lack of affordable housing for fixed-income elderly and lower-income workers. The shortage of affordable housing is so severe in West Hawaii that thousands of workers spend hours each day commuting from Puna or Kau, leaving many chronically sleep-deprived.
The county is working on a combination affordable housing project and homeless center called “Village 9” that would operate side-by-side in a 35-acre lot in the Kona Industrial area. But Drysdale notes Village 9 still hasn’t gone through an environmental assessment or a preliminary engineering report, that no contracts have been let, and no public hearings have been held.
“In the interim, there are some facilities in our community that with minor tweaking and modifications, could be utilized as temporary shelters,” she says, adding she hasn’t talked with the owners of any of those facilities.
Drysdale thinks that the county should work on public/private partnerships similar to Kahauiki, a plantation-style village that a coalition including the state, the city of Honolulu, the aio Foundation, and other donors is developing for the homeless on Oahu. Besides housing, the village would incorporate vegetable gardens, fruit trees, fish farms and “common areas for social service programs and recreational activities,” according to the project’s website.
Villegas strikes a similar note.
“It’s difficult to create affordable housing here, based on the high cost of real estate,” she says. “It’s really going to take a collaboration between the state and the county and the developers and the employers … There has to be a responsibility in future developers to contribute to the solution.”
One model she likes for affordable workforce housing is Kamakana Villages, a new apartment complex that recently opened its first units.
“In Kamakana Villages, the ohana units have four units at 60 percent AMI (Area Median Income), 50 units at 50 percent AMI, and 20 percent vouchers,” Villegas says. “I would like to see that become the norm and the standard. I’m not sure County Council could make it a law, but it should be heavily encouraged.”
Another issue on many residents’ minds is renewable energy and the high cost of fossil fuel-powered electricity. The island has at least temporarily lost its biggest nonfossil fuel power plant, Puna Geothermal Venture, which was already criticized for toxic gas emissions before it was cut off by lava. Neither candidate is enthusiastic about another controversial project, Hu Honua, which would convert a plantation-era plant to burn locally grown eucalyptus. Both favor solar, wind and more innovative technologies.
“I see the opportunity as a county councilperson of being in a position to connect with organizations currently in existence in the islands such as the Blue Planet Foundation,” Villegas says. “They consist of scientists and experts who potentially have solutions for these problems.”
She also likes the nonprofit Kohala Center’s work in creating an “Energy Sustainability Roadmap” for the county.
Drysdale points to Lucid Energy, which is developing a system to use microturbines to generate energy from water flowing downhill in municipal water systems, as an example of innovative new energy technologies. But she also thinks at least one existing energy supplier hasn’t been used well.
“My heart breaks when I think of Lalamilo Wind Farm (in Kau),” she says of the financially failing project. “Here are people that came in, did what they were asked to do, but then things changed and now their product, clean energy, is being sidelined.”
One subject where the two candidates disagree is the future of the county’s Public Access Open Space and Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The PONC draws on funding set aside from 2 percent of property taxes to purchase lands for public access and conservation. That level, set by charter amendment and repeatedly confirmed by voters, has been criticized as too high by the current County Charter Commission.
Villegas notes that land purchases have not been going through as fast as money has been accumulating in the fund. She suggests capping it at $20 million and allowing the county to use any excess over that for other purposes.
But Drysdale is inclined to honor voters’ wishes.
“It’s been on the ballot three times, and every time the people have voted to maintain the 2 percent,” she says.
A charter amendment regarding PONC will not be on the ballot before 2020. But Big Island residents are voting now on two other proposed amendments.
Amendment 1, proposed by Councilman Aaron Chung, would require that any future charter amendments be accompanied by a fiscal impact statement.
“We should consider the fiscal ramifications in anything we do,” says Chung.
Amendment 2, proposed by Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, would increase transparency for the County Salary Commission, which has been criticized for voting on double-digit salary increases for county officials on the same day that those increases were proposed.
The amendment would require the commission to provide the public a detailed statement about proposed increases 30 days prior to voting on them, and require a two-third’s majority of commissioners to vote in favor of any increase of over 10 percent.
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