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Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 6 General Election, 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 Felicia Cowden, a candidate for Kauai County Council. There are 13 other candidates for seven positions, including Kanoe Ahuna, Arthur Brun, Mason Chock, Juno Ann Apalla Billy DeCosta, Norma Doctor Sparks, Luke Evslin, Shaylene Iseri, Ross Kagawa, Arryl Kaneshiro, Kipukai Kuali’i, Adam Roversi and Milo Spindt.
1. The April flooding demonstrated some homes and infrastructure are particularly vulnerable to heavy rain. Should this change the county’s approach to development, and if so, how?
The county’s approach to permitting in flood-prone areas needs examination and enforcement. The flooding demonstrated where building codes and planning have misaligned with nature and changing climate conditions. As permits are allocated parcel by parcel and properties change hands over time, the holistic watershed management we need has been difficult to attempt.
With the flooding, we saw the impacts of the series of individual property choices on a range of parcels over the decades. These choices, such as infill, landscape grading and grubbing effecting drainage, hard surface installation, tree removal, hardening of the water’s edge, diversions, and the building of heavy concrete houses, each have their impact on the natural flow of the estuaries.
Even prior to the unprecedented flood, neighborhood blame and tension occurred in the impacted areas. Unwise Conservation District Use Permits are too often allowed in saturated, dynamic hillsides and shorelines. Real estate disclaimers and building applications should reflect soil depth on land sales and building permits. In the intense watersheds of the Hanalei estuary and the Wainiha hillsides, heavy concrete houses have been built on unstable land or areas with one inch of soil on top of sand. This defies common sense.
2. Are changes needed in how the County Council is run, and if so what are they?
We can better handle critical business with a return to cross discussion at the council level. There is currently a limit on the ability of council members to ask questions of a testifying member of the public, as well as to debate with one another. More committed time for county and community focus would strengthen the depth of knowledge for the council members. This is often difficult as many people need to hold outside jobs due to the modest pay-scale for the position. A charter amendment I unsuccessfully proposed this past season is to have four at-large, full-time council members with staggered four-year terms at an increased level of pay. The three remaining positions could be districted, two-year terms at a similar pay structure and expectation as present. All council members would have equal authority in office regardless of term of office. That proposed format would create greater stability for council responsibilities.
3. Kauai County recently implemented a 0.5 percent GET surcharge for public transportation. Do you support this decision? Why or why not?
This 0.5 percent GET surcharge would not have gotten my vote. We need to be cautious to not have the state and the counties leveraging the same taxes. General Excise Tax is regressive, meaning those with the least amount of money typically pay a greater percentage of their income than those with more. Business owners get leveraged with multiple layers of this tax. Transportation infrastructure of both the roads and the bus do very much need repair. I feel that this should come from a greater percentage of the transient accommodations tax or a grant in aid from the state.
This fall, we’ll have a ballot question allowing the state to add a real property tax to higher-end properties. It is a slippery slope if soon both the state and the counties are taxing on business enterprise and real estate, as it will eliminate the ability for influencing or controlling economic behaviors through taxation by the differing layers of government.
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?
The General Plan Update emphasizes “Smart Growth,” with mixed use in residential/commercial zoning in town cores, complete communities that provide necessary services within walking distance of residential housing, with proximity to transit stops and a short drive to neighboring farms. I support that vision. Re-purposing commercial spaces to be mixed with upper apartment-style residential units will avoid urban decay and fresh sprawl.
We need to rethink how we can create community housing clusters that comply with infrastructure and safety codes which allow common shared space with small satellite personal structures for sleeping. This occurs naturally on larger family properties and on farms where many hands are needed for diversified agriculture. A new crop, such as hemp, is worth exploring. Living and working in close proximity has been the norm throughout the world for most of human history.
Growth management policies are demonstrating success in other beautiful environmental locations that also struggle with the inter-relationship of tourism feeding luxury home sales that pressure residents out of housing and consume the natural surroundings. There may be zoning and policy practices that can be applied to Kauai to help us balance these competing interests.
5. What would you do, if anything, to strengthen police accountability?
I would support the Kauai Police Department by being cautious in accepting federal monies that measure grant compliance in arrests and convictions, asset forfeitures, or ticket quotas. This can create a predatory role in conducting police actions that are unfair to both the officer and the public. I would also support a charter amendment for more broad administrative oversight. The police department, which is a para-military force, is largely insulated from administrative control from the main branches of government. Currently, the appointed, volunteer chair of the Police Commission delivers individual complaints against the department to the chief of police, who then is responsible to manage any internal investigations.
A charter structure to broaden oversight and accountability could enact third-party internal investigations, when cause is determined, with a formal request supported be two or more of the following entities: the mayor’s office, the County Council, the Police Commission or the Prosecutor’s Office. The structure of this proposal would need to be well-vetted in the public process so that the integrity of our police force can be protected by a systemic procedure rather than rely on the courage and charisma of two individuals who currently hold this great responsibility.
6. What specific steps would you take to strengthen Hawaii’s lax lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure laws?
At a county level, our current policies are relatively proficient if enforced. An improvement would be an on-line, transparent process for announcing openings for boards and commissions and active outreach for job positions of decision making authority. This does not limit the prerogative of the mayor to choose the hires and appointments, but the field of applicants is revealed to the council and possibly citizens before confirmation. An open definition of time requirements and skill sets are valuable for the appointee as well as the council and public for a more appropriate match.
Unpaid, volunteer boards are asked to preform a substantial amount of work often with limited training and perhaps not a strong enough background. Unfair bias to specific interests become more evident when an appointment is simply a pick of a known individual rather than a clear best choice among a field of qualified applicants. Kauai is blessed with an untapped, talented pool of citizens. My first step in this direction would be to support and encourage our next administration to add this improvement before working to create hard policy action. This is a natural next step for our continually improving transparency and on-line presence.
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 a stair-stepped level of fee structure for access to public records based on the request and a reasonable demonstration that it is in the public interest. There is a continuum of what could be determined to be reasonable. It is important that citizens are allowed clear access to public information regardless of their financial standing. Abuse to the intention of this policy of access to public records happens on both ends of the spectrum.
On one end, clear stone-walling to public inquiry happens in what can be interpreted as protection of industry with strong ties to the revolving door of government. The opposite dynamic is where one citizen or entity can harass government by demanding an inordinate amount of materials at great expense of time or capacity. This is an area in which I would need to spend more time researching the history of this issue before developing an implementable policy proposal.
8. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
Communicating with the public is an area of strength for me. For nine years I have had a community affairs program on Kauai Community Radio in drive time. The format of the program almost defines my life’s expression during these years, and my run for County Council is an extension of that role. The program explores areas of community opportunities, concerns and conflicts. We bring stakeholders, experts and policy-makers into the conversation as a matter of routine practice.
Over the years, I have learned how important it is to role model respectful dialogue and work to solve problems without having to make anybody wrong. Kauai has my full-time commitment to the work of a County Council member, and I am comfortable facilitating dialogue between entities of competing interests. I find joy in meeting with people to hear their ideas for resolving problems or bettering their communities and can listen with a mindset of “How can we achieve this goal?” rather than responding with “why we cannot.”
Clarifying the layers of government authority and assisting an activated citizen to bringing their concerns to the responsible department will continue to be my practice. I am available to the people.
9. What more should Kauai County be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
The preparations for climate change equally benefit the present. A more resilient Kauai would include connector road development that offers more “inward and upward” points of mobility utilizing old cane roads. A number of areas on each side of the island have the potential to trap emergency evacuation along low-lying coastal areas. This solves a current vulnerability and daily inconvenience in our traffic bottlenecks. As is outlined in the General Plan Update, future development and sewage treatment facilities need to be placed at higher elevations. Encouraging cinderblock safe-rooms in higher-ground homes and neighborhoods can offer hurricane protection.
This global problem can deeply impact our islands without a direct hit as shipping, transportation, the world economy including the visitor industry can suffer unexpectedly. Prioritizing local food production, agroforestry and a locally based economy is paramount for true stability. Mountain to the sea watershed management is essential for a healthy reef and recharged aquifers. The century of using and creating toxins and unnecessary trash needs to be a part of the past. It is a mindset change that we can all make. Upbeat education is needed to guide us in that direction.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Kauai’s most pressing issues are being experienced across the world. The costs of running an island, or a home, are overwhelming as we swim in the current of the global economy. The levels of debt confronting many residents, along with the county, state and federal governments, are compounded by building and infrastructure requirements that are financially unobtainable. It has left us with many houseless people and crumbling infrastructure.
Costly environmental disasters on the rise along with endless wars are resulting in less available government funding to assist overcoming our problems. Economic stratification has grown and the crimes against the Hawaiian nation persist. Living on the edge of stability loss or houselessness spirals into depression, unhealthy drug dependence, poor health, crime, and unnecessarily high levels of incarceration.
All of us are impacted by these losses of those around us. We cannot control what is happening in the world, but we can focus on becoming more self-reliant. We have willfully chosen to prioritize outside investment at the expense of our local vitality. I will be vigilantly by the side of our people in considering and amplifying ideas that help us return toward the abundance-potential our islands can provide.