- Special Projects
Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 8 Primary 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 Mitch Roth, candidate for Hawaii County mayor. Other candidates include Neil Azevedo, Paul Bryant, Bob Fitzgerald, Michael Glendon, Robert Greenwell, Stacy Higa, Wendell Ka’ehu’ae’a, Yumi Kawano, Harry Kim, Ikaika Marzo, Mike Ruggles, Ted Shaneyfelt, Tante Urban and Lahi Verschuur.
1. Hawaii’s economy has been hard hit with the outbreak of the coronavirus and measures to prevent its spread, mainly because of the collapse of the tourism industry. Should we continue to rely largely on the visitor industry for economic vitality? What concrete steps would you take to bring tourism back? What else would you do to diversify the island’s economy?
While we can make great strides in diversifying our economy, tourism will continue to play a key role in our economic livelihood. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the county’s residents were still struggling, with more than half of island families either falling into the ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed) category or living in poverty.
Hawaii island workers need to be able to earn a living in a safe and healthy environment. The visitor industry has been providing that for many Hawaii island families so we need to help this industry regain a foothold while diversifying the economy. My initial steps to help bring tourism back, in concert with industry experts, include:
• Highlighting kamaaina opportunities;
• Advocating for screening and testing, and
• Supporting the tourism industry where possible.
At the same time, we will move forward with infrastructure development for capital improvement projects as we consider the range of options that are available to diversify the island’s economy, including agriculture, renewable energy, science and technology and more. This will take time, but we can start by working to improve the agricultural distribution system, working to reduce energy costs and increasing use of renewable energy sources.
2. As the economy struggles, the county may have to cut expenses and seek new revenue sources. What would you cut? And what is an area where you see potential new revenue?
It’s clear that unless there is additional funding for small towns coming from the federal government, the next county budget (2021-2022) will be short on revenues. In order to better understand where we can be more efficient, I intend on meeting with all levels of county employees to determine where cuts can be made. This may include reducing overtime, freezing certain positions or improving the way the county procurement contracts are written to ensure that the county is getting the best value for its money, or using public-private partnerships to assist in delivery of services.
I do not intend on raising taxes. Thus, the county will balance its budget by cutting expenses, and, only if absolutely necessary, offering municipal bonds (borrowing) in the short-term. Potential revenue sources may include user fees for some county facilities, but a primary mode will be to spin up a grant-writing campaign within the county.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on the Big Island?
Thanks to the willingness of the community to follow the health guidance and the travel ban put in place, Hawaii island was fortunate to avoid the kind of damage to residents’ health, health care facilities, and nursing homes that other places in the country and in the world have been subjected to by this virus.
I would have supported the recommendations that were being made by Lt. Gov. Josh Green. Furthermore, I would have improved the communications with the public about the virus, its impacts, and the plans to mitigate it, as communications were initially delivered haphazardly at the state and Hawaii County level, especially during a period when anxiety was rising among those most vulnerable.
As mayor, I will ensure that we have a constant and consistent stream of clear and relevant information regarding future threats and emergencies, and how families and individuals can deal with them.
4. State and county residents, government officials and developers have been split over efforts to build the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Do you support construction of the TMT? Do you support the protesters? What would you have done differently in the past year to resolve the issue?
I support construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. I believe that our entire community benefits from the economic and educational opportunities TMT and our astronomy industry provides. The construction and high-tech jobs TMT would create for residents will be important as we recover from the pandemic.
TMT also represents deeply felt issues for many Native Hawaiians and I know there are longstanding concerns regarding the stewardship of Mauna Kea over the past 50 years. Although the decision as to whether or not TMT is built ultimately rests with the state and TMT themselves, I am committed to providing leadership on behalf of Hawaii County to move the dialogue forward in an open, inclusive manner. Bringing people together to solve challenging problems is what I have been doing my entire professional career.
There are different tools available to enforce the rule of law and I have a different perspective on what is effective based on my experience as a prosecutor. Dialogue is an important but underutilized tool. Unfortunately, between 2015 and 2019, more community engagement was needed to look at better addressing these issues. If all you have in your toolbox is a hammer, all your problems are nails.
5. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Hawaii island. What would you do to come to grips on this persistent problem?
I would recommend continuing to implement the Housing First strategy that the county is in the process of setting up. This initiative focuses on getting chronic homeless off the street and then into treatment programs, and is considered a best practice around the country. Additionally, I would support creating one-stop shops where homeless can obtain numerous treatment options such as: drug/alcohol treatment, job training, mental health counseling, etc. These one-stop shops can be implemented through existing agencies where the county acts as a partner.
However, homelessness is a symptom of other issues that must be addressed to implement real change. I believe in getting to the roots of problems. At the roots of homelessness are issues such as adverse childhood experiences including domestic violence, and lack of treatment for returning veterans and PTSD. These issues often lead to drugs, mental health issues and homelessness.
Lack of employment together with a shortage of affordable housing also adds to the homelessness issue. If elected mayor, I will take a proactive approach to addressing and preventing these root issues by building partnerships with stakeholders, advocating for laws that help stem these issues and educating the community.
6. Recent deaths of citizens at the hands of police are igniting protests and calls for reform across the country, primarily aimed at preventing discrimination against people of color. Do you see this issue as a problem in Hawaii County? What should be done to improve policing and police accountability on the Big Island? Should oversight of the police department be strengthened or reformed?
Having been in the prosecutor’s office for over 20 years, I have not seen the problems with discrimination seen in other police departments across the nation. While no organization is perfect and can always use improvement, I believe that the standards in place in the Hawaii Police Department (HPD) demonstrate a department that strives to continuously improve.
Oversight of the HPD rests with the police commission, the members of which are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the County Council. The HPD is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse police forces in the country, and its ranks are filled by qualified candidates from the island population. In addition, the department has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) three consecutive times, to include most recently in November 2019. For over 20 years the HPD has had community police officers whose primary role is to build partnerships to help resolve recurring issues. Taking this into account, I don’t think that the Hawaii Police Department needs to be reformed.
7. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Gov. David Ige suspended the open government laws under an emergency order during the pandemic. Do you agree or disagree with his action? What would you do to ensure the public has access to open meetings and public records in a timely fashion?
I believe in having a transparent government. I agree with the governor’s initial suspension of the open government laws for a limited time and limited purpose as decisions needed to be made quickly when the emergency first started. This action was taken to allow government operations to continue while ensuring that quarantine procedures to protect the health and safety of state residents and visitors were capable of being complied with.
However, now that the pandemic has gone on for several months, I believe these laws should be relaxed and we should look to other avenues of allowing the public to have notice and access to open meetings and public records. For example, several candidate forums have been held using virtual meeting technology, which allowed the public to have access to these forums. These same technologies can be used to allow for public participation of government meetings and public records. Maintaining the capacity for web access at the county level will be a priority of mine as the county safely reopens physical access to government meetings.
8. What more should Hawaii County be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
Climate change is the existential challenge of our and our children’s lifetimes. On Hawaii island we are already living with its impacts: warming oceans, sea level rise and higher temperatures which change the living zones at different elevations on our mountains. We can contribute to overcoming this challenge by choosing strategies that:
• Mitigate climate change effects now and
• Slow, stop and reverse the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions are being pumped into the atmosphere.
These strategies include upgrading disaster resilience plans and preparations, implementing a minimum sea level rise assumption for decision-making processes (such as land use and budget), and supporting the development, distribution and use of renewable energy sources.
Additionally, I intend on setting the stage to host a sustainability summit within the first 100 days of my administration. This summit will bring bright minds together to develop actionable strategies that will help Hawaii island address issues regarding renewable energy, sea-level rise, threats to our reef and more. The summit will also focus on how Hawaii can become more self-sustainable, and provide opportunities for residents to think globally and act locally to reduce climate change.
9. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.
What I imagine for Hawaii island in particular is to build upon our values and create a vibrant, business-friendly community where residents want to live and children who leave want to return. My “one big idea” to achieve this vision is making Hawaii island a model for the rest of the world in renewable energy and agriculture.
Hawaii island has the best opportunity in the world to move renewable energy forward and reduce our reliance on petroleum. Solar, wind, geothermal and waste-to-energy all can be used to produce hydrogen cheaper than petroleum. Hydrogen is safe, and can be used in various ways to fuel equipment and vehicles (such as buses). For this to become a reality, the county must take steps now to ensure that our codes are in place and help rather than obstruct progress.
Additionally, our island is the “breadbasket” of Hawaii, and has a great opportunity to expand our agriculture industry to support our local economy. One way we can do this is by connecting farmers with land, and agricultural landowners with farmers. We can also help to scale some of our island’s “made in Hawaii” products nationally and internationally through county-supported accelerator programs.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing the Big Island? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue is high unemployment following COVID-19. I will engage with leaders around the island to focus first on solving the primary issue — getting our residents back to work and restarting our economy while keeping our island healthy and safe. In concert with this, we need to help businesses thrive. To do this we need to change the philosophy of our current government from one which sees itself permitting businesses to exist to one that helps businesses succeed.
We can help make this happen by:
• Looking at existing laws and processes and determining with the business community where government can remove obstacles. For instance, the county can streamline and standardize its permitting process to make it much easier, faster and cost-effective to build.
• Building up Hawaii island’s technological infrastructure so that residents, business owners and children have better access to the internet.
• Partnering with the University of Hawaii system, the business community, non-profit organizations, and others in the community to create accelerator programs to assist entrepreneurial startups and help existing businesses scale. Some of the opportunities that the county should support through this include sustainable agriculture, science and technology, renewable energy and more.