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 Stacy Higa, candidate for Hawaii County mayor. Other candidates include Neil Azevedo, Paul Bryant, Bob Fitzgerald, Michael Glendon, Robert Greenwell, Wendell Ka’ehu’ae’a, Yumi Kawano, Harry Kim, Ikaika Marzo, Mitch Roth, 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?
Yes. Tourism is and will continue to be one of our major industries, but it should never have been our sole industry. Testing is the only foolproof way to bring it back 100 percent. Until that happens, we will have to rely on sequestering or restricting outside visitors from contacting our local populations other than employees at their respective hotels.
One of the best ways to bring tourism back sooner is offering “staycations” to Hawaii residents as a way to slowly kick-start the industry. Removing profit from the equation to just keep people employed is an important first step.
Construction and agriculture are two industries that I would ramp up immediately. Hawaii island has always had the potential to be the “breadbasket” of the Pacific, and the county needs to take the lead to promote/foster/market/partner with our agriculture industry. Construction is the same as hotels, fast-track approvals and infrastructure projects to keep construction workers employed, and remove profit from the equation during these hard and difficult times.
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?
I would implement a hiring freeze for non-essential employees. Using attrition to guide my administration would be key to reducing costs. I also see computerization and technology as an opportunity to work with the unions to streamline and redeploy staff to make the county more efficient and cost-effective.
Reduce all overtime and create “hazard pay” to replace non-essential overtime that has become rampant in government operations. As a businessman, I would look at offering public-private partnerships for underutilized areas and facilities in our government, so we can reduce expenses and become a partner or landlord. One example of what I am envisioning is searching for vendors to occupy and create a restaurant opportunity at our Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo, where a vendor could create a business in the arena open 365 days a year, and also provide food services to people coming for events. This would create a monthly revenue stream.
There are tremendous opportunities like these throughout the county, which could be a boon for creating revenue, and opportunities for enterprising entrepreneurs.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on the Big Island?
I would have worked harder with the governor and mayors to quickly craft a unified message for all citizens in our state. Misinformation is something that the public cannot handle. I would also use common sense in regards to how I would issue proclamations affecting our county, like putting rules and processes in place so that people and businesses can make an educated decision on how to run a business, and whether customers will patronize a business.
It comes down to choices that individuals need to make. A classic example is nonsensical rules like opening restaurants with social distancing rules in place so that businesses can make their individual plans, then stating “no live music” in these establishments. What or why would that rule come into play, if social distancing rules, and precautions are in place?
I would have locked down the island immediately, and once rules were established, worked to open or convince the governor to allow for a phased-in approach to reopening our communities. My administration would handle things differently because of my business experience and customer service training that I have garnered over the course of my career. Serve the public and their needs, and keeping everyone safe will be my guiding principles.
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 the construction of the TMT? Do you support the protesters? What would you have done differently in the past year to resolve the issue?
I personally support the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), as I feel that astronomy is a very credible and worthy industry. I also support the protestors’ right to legally and peacefully demonstrate against this project, as long as no laws are broken! I also believe Native Hawaiian issues are much larger than TMT. As mayor, I would work to try and resolve the larger issues that have somehow been entangled with TMT.
Because TMT has gone through a very long and thorough permitting process, one that the Hawaii Supreme Court upheld, I would have encouraged and supported TMT to start construction. The state and county should protect and uphold the law of the land and make sure everyone’s rights are taken care of, both the protectors and TMT.
We are a land of laws, not men, and I would encourage all protectors if they don’t like the laws, they need to work through the current system to reform them. Majority wins in our society, and if I was to win the election by one vote and it was upheld by the courts as legitimate, I hope my opponents would not obstruct my inauguration because they did not like the outcome and try to null and void a legal election. Same with the TMT process, as the law was followed and validated.
5. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Hawaii island. What would you do to come to grips with this persistent problem?
I intend to work with the County Council to create sit-lie, public nuisance and vagrancy laws. We need laws to be able to remove the “choice of homeless people” when it comes to shelters and programs trying to help solve this problem. Once I can separate willing people who don’t want to be homeless, then it becomes easier to help those that want the help. I can then also separate the mental health homeless, the drug-addicted homeless, homeless suffering from domestic abuse, and get them the proper treatment and care because their choices will have been taken away.
We would still have partners who are helping with this crisis now, but the law would be on their side in forcing people to address the homeless situation. The people who want that lifestyle can still continue to do that, but the law will force them to comply with society’s rules and regulations. Like everything else, here are the rules, and the homeless will just have to follow the law.
Help will be available to those who want help.
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?
I don’t see it as a problem in our county, because we have excellent police officers, and Hawaii has always been a racially tolerant state that accepts various ethnic groups as part of our diverse community. I think that body-cams or cameras in cars should be standard practice because I think there are many opportunities for people to incite or attempt to aggravate police action in the hopes of obtaining a police settlement. So having documentation protects all parties involved.
I don’t think it is an issue, but our administration should be aware, able to communicate, and educate officers about this issue. The police commission does an excellent job of oversight and the mayor needs to appoint quality people to this commission.
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 that the public should always have access to meetings and records. When there is a will, then there is a way to accommodate and keep the government open. My business background and use of technology would help ensure that the government for the people is never threatened, even in times of crisis.
As public servants, we need to strive to do better.
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?
We should be working with the University of Hawaii and climate scientists from around the world, to consult with other countries or areas that are in similar situations as Hawaii. I would like to create a local management system that is county-based on home rule, so we can better protect our natural resources. Because climate change and sea-level rise are much broader than a single solution, I will ensure that all departments within the county work in tandem to account for climate change in all aspects. For example, this would mean that all plans and strategies employed would be required to address potential climate impacts. A division within the Department of Research and Development would oversee these plans to ensure continuity across the board.
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 created 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.
We have to reinvent our local economy. This will include revamping our tourism industry to adjust for a new reality until there can be an antidote or cure for this disease. Encourage “staycations” as a way to keep our hotel and tour industry alive. The profit motivation needs to be temporarily replaced with a break-even mentality. Therefore, our state and county governments need to invest in infrastructure and marketing to help create distribution opportunities for our farming and cattle industries. I believe with the right leadership, the county government should take the lead in promoting and creating economic diversification through a very aggressive Research and Development Department.
Business skills and traits are needed to kick start our new economic endeavors.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing the Big Island? What will you do about it?
Economy, economy, economy! When our economy fails, everything else will be in serious decline. As mayor, I must fast-track building permits so that contractors can keep their workforce working. Industrial supply houses will be able to move lumber and related products to help keep the economy moving as well.
Government infrastructure jobs shall be fast-tracked to ensure large construction jobs are moving forward. Work with the Hawaii Tourism Authority and its contractors to make sure we reimagine our local tourism industry as mentioned earlier to keep the workforce employed. Invite and promote businesses to invest in our communities as we start to migrate to high-tech jobs that we all tested throughout this COVID-19 pandemic.
My business background will pay dividends in helping to streamline government and introduce technology into our county to make things more easily accessible for our residents.