In a crowded field where name recognition alone might not be enough to separate from the pack, several Big Island mayoral candidates are touting west side projects in an attempt to earn the leeward vote.
On Hawaii island, west side support can be the difference between success or failure.
Unless one of the candidates earns more than 50% of the vote during the Aug. 8 primary, the top two of the 14 candidates will advance to the general election in November, meaning every vote on an island with a population of 200,000 will be coveted.
But on the Big Island, the division between east and west is as real as it is symbolic.
The drier, sunnier Kona side in the west is a tourist and luxury-home haven that comprises 70% of the county’s property tax base every year. Yet, residents often feel overlooked when it comes to projects and resources compared to the eastern side of the island, where Hilo, the more populous governmental capital, is located. It’s also not lost on residents that the island has never had a west side mayor, either.
A pair of Kona-side candidates have some name recognition this year – former county parks director and football coach Bob Fitzgerald chief among them — but the betting favorites all hail from the east once again.
Still, they’re all pledging big projects for the west side should they get elected.
Prosecutor Mitch Roth, incumbent Mayor Harry Kim, community organizer Ikaika Marzo and former Hawaii County Councilman Stacy Higa are some of the early favorites.
They say that developing a $75 million Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Hawaii is a top priority.
Design plans for the upgraded plant are on hold, however, while the county wrestles with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a similar case on Maui. At issue is whether the plant needs discharge permits, which the county is seeking lest it get hit with fines, because it releases treated sewage into the ground below adjacent Honokohau Harbor.
In the meantime, the county is trying to construct a system to reuse the treated, R-1 recycled water for things such as irrigation.
Candidates say developing a reuse plan and tackling the project is of utmost importance.
“There’s no money out there that scares me — no number you can tell me,” Higa said of the price tag to upgrade the treatment plant. “Because if we don’t do it, the amount of fines and the amount of damage we’re going to do to our communities, to our ocean and our environment, it’s billions.”
Higa, of Hilo, is CEO of Na Leo TV, a community education station. He touted his small business experience during a mayoral forum June 25 that the station’s book value has increased by $5 million during his five-year tenure.
He was also County Council chairman from 2004 to 2006 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2008.
Born and raised on the Big Island, Higa, 57, said he also has governmental experience to push through on projects that have languished on the west side, which are many. Examples of those, he said, are adding and fixing roads.
Traffic congestion is a huge topic out west. While plans for additional connector roads, such as Alii Parkway, have been studied since his time on council, Higa said his administration will pick those up as quickly as possible, once elected.
“Talk, talk, talk, I’m a business guy, I just want to get them done,” Higa said, describing county decision-making as “analysis by paralysis.”
“Do it or get off the pot,” he said.
One idea that Higa is championing that differs from his competitors is that he would divide his Cabinet staff with autonomous, west side representation.
Hilo lies about 80 road miles from Kona. Higa said a majority of his departments would have east and west side directors and that those Kona-based leaders would be granted wide discretion when it comes to decisions that affect the west side, contingent upon mayoral approval.
“In other words, west side decisions are going to be made on the west side of the island,” Higa said. “I understand that 70% of the tax base is generated out there and that you guys get 30 percent of the return. I’m going to shift that. I’m going to shift that big time.”
Roth, however, thinks that plan is problematic.
The county prosecutor credits the west side of the island with carrying him to office in 2012, but that providing too much autonomy to certain positions could run counter to governing rules.
“One of our problems right now in this county is that we are inconsistent on how we are interpreting the rules and laws. That would just add to the inconsistency,” Roth said. “It’s a nice-sounding promise, but I think it’s important we have consistent rules and they’re interpreted consistently. I think that makes it difficult to run two separate counties.”
Roth, 55, stressed the importance of improving roads and upgrading the treatment plant plan as top priorities as well. A solution to the treatment plant, he pointed out, would also relieve the burden on Kona’s at-times strapped water wells.
When it comes to representing leeward interests, he pointed to his track record as a deputy prosecutor and prosecutor.
Roth established numerous block watches and public safety programs out west, such as the “Shattered Dreams” anti-drunk driving program at Kealakehe High School that reduced DUI fatalities after it was created.
He’s also the only prosecutor to tap a Kona resident as his top deputy prosecutor, Dale Ross. And one of his biggest priorities is combating homelessness, a big issue in Kona.
More specifically, Roth wants to attack the root causes of homelessness, which can be triggered by what the judicial and medical communities classify as adverse childhood experiences. Domestic violence is a major ACE factor and can contribute to high homeless, suicide and drug abuse rates, as do mental health issues.
Instead of implementing sit-lie bans — a rule against the homeless implemented in Honolulu which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected and other candidates, such as Higa, said they would explore – Roth is pushing for more substance and domestic violence treatment and prevention.
Those initiatives he’d implement inside Kona’s Village 9 project, the emergency, transitional and affordable housing project also known as Kukuiola.
“This is probably one of the biggest community issues that there is,” Roth said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of the other candidates who are getting involved trying to be proactive rather than reactive.”
Roth has outraised all the other candidates as well.
According to the latest financial disclosure reports filed Thursday with the state Campaign Spending Commission, Roth has raised $150,815 this election period. He’s spent $78,407, leaving him with $21,887.
Higa is second. He’s raised $80,993 and spent $71,929 so far.
Neil Azavedo, Hawaii County’s division chief in Public Works for the Highways Division, is third. The Hilo resident has raised $48,891 and spent $30,690. He’s followed by Marzo, who has raised $45,564 and spent $23,677.
Tante Urban, former Kailua-Kona restaurateur and businessman, has raised $8,000, good for fifth, and spent $8,780, leaving him $780 in the red.
Kim, the incumbent, has raised $2,846 and spent $1,266 this election season.
Kim points to Village 9 as a project he is proud of on the west side of the island.
A collaboration with the state through Ohana Zones funding, it’s actually just one part – albeit it a big part — of a drive for more transitional and affordable housing for the area.
Housing and homeless issues have been consistently at the top of the local Chamber of Commerce’s legislative priorities every year and Kim’s administration has recognized that.
Just last week a temporary homeless shelter was constructed at Old Kona Airport Park for up to 30 people thanks to county, state and federal funding.
Not too far away, the Ulu Wini affordable housing complex was completed a couple of years ago, and occupant capacity was reached shortly after it opened.
Kim, 81, pledged more support for such projects should the longtime civil servant receive a fourth term, including finishing what he started with Kukuiola. Spread over 35 acres, the plan is underway although build-out is still years out.
“I’m proud of Village 9. I’m sure people wanted it faster, God knows we did too,” Kim said. “I’d sure like to see that through. And it will go through.”
He also pointed to work on Kona’s Ane Keohokalole Highway as roadwork that was started under his administration that would continue. The major thoroughfare is expected to ease traffic congestion once completed.
The last four years have been busy for the mayor. He dealt with disasters from the get-go: the Kilauea eruption, Hurricane Lane, protests on Mauna Kea, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic.
His administration tackled major island-wide issues in that time, too, implementing short-term vacation rental regulations, cleaning up county hiring practices that played favorites internally, and is currently trying to rewrite and simplify the county building permitting process – an issue that nearly every candidate says needs to be addressed.
“I’m proud of those changes because it goes with a theme I want and that was openly said from Day One,” Kim said. “I want to be part of a county government that the people are proud of.”
But the mayor has also had to defend increasing a number of taxes and fees in the last four years, an increased budget, as well as concerns about the perceived lack of attention he spends on priorities outside of Hilo.
He was asked at the June 25 forum whether he felt he spent enough time in Kona, to which he answered he should be judged on the job he’s done, not from where he’s done it.
“If you could turn things back, I would have answered it differently,” Kim said of the Kona question.
It’s a question he says he fields often, from practically every district outside of Hilo. He said the truth was that once the disasters started, he didn’t have enough time to travel to other districts as much as he would have liked.
“I should have answered that way, but I didn’t,” he said.
Marzo, 36, has been perhaps the most vocal about the response of Kim’s administration during the lava crises.
Although he’s never run for office, the president of Kalapana Cultural Tours created a large following during the 2018 Kilauea eruption by posting daily updates of the lava flow online.
He and several others formed a grassroots community center known as “the hub” that distributed meals, donations and emergency items to the affected community during that time.
Marzo said the incumbent’s team should have been better prepared and quicker to communicate during the crisis.
“We need to expect volcanic eruptions and other disasters like hurricanes based on the island’s history,” he said. “Disasters here are not an excuse for a lack of transparency, communication, or listening to the public.”
But besides the crisis response, Marzo graded the administration a “C” when it came to representing west side interests during the last four years – something he said would change under him.
Along with sewer, road, homeless and housing improvements, Marzo said police officer retention needs to be addressed out west. More parks and keiki programs need to be added, too. Half of the mayor’s cabinet should be from or reside in West Hawaii, he added, and the under-used West Hawaii Mayor’s Office should be occupied at least weekly.
“Equal representation of all districts is extremely important to me, and part of that is correcting past inequality such as West Hawaii being underrepresented for generations,” he said. “Kona has more people and deserves more attention than ever.”
Of the four Kona-side candidates, Fitzgerald carries perhaps the most in terms of name recognition combined with governmental service.
The former Konawaena High School football coach won a slew of league football championships – including at the hands of other candidates. The 67-year-old was former director and deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department under then-Mayor Billy Kenoi from 2008-14.
He’s promoting road and wastewater improvements like the other candidates, but also specific park projects for downtown Kailua-Kona. He wants to vastly improve Old Kona Airport Park and Kealakehe Regional Park, a giant greenspace adjacent to the Village 9 housing project that’s getting off the ground.
“That’s one of the reasons I ran,” Fitzgerald said of transforming the parks. “The mayor has really let that slide.”
Old Airport could be a beach park akin to Honolulu’s Ala Moana Park. The Kealakehe park has an estimated $80 million price tag, but that doesn’t mean it has to cost that much, he said. Plans for improving both have been discussed for a long time and should be further down the line by now.
“That’s one of the things I’m frustrated with,” said Fitzgerald, who had raised about $5,700 according to the latest campaign finance report. “I thought it was real close when I retired from the county and now things are just on a standstill.”
But will west-side related projects resonate island-wide? Kailua-Kona’s population was roughly 12,000 at the last Census, whereas Hilo’s was 46,000.
It’ll take a candidate with name recognition that earns respect across the island, Fitzgerald said. He said his coaching, government, family and senior softball ties give him that.
It will also take voter turnout. If the Hilo-based candidates split up the eastern vote, and the western block supports one of their own, it could land a leeward candidate in the runoff election after the primary.
“I really need the west to come out and vote,” Fitzgerald said. “Traditionally, they don’t.”
The other candidates are: Robert Greenwell; Mike Ruggles; Tante Urban; Wendell Ka‘ehu‘ae‘a; Ted Shaneyfelt; Yumi Kawano; Michael “Mikey” Glendon; Paul Bryant; and Lahi Verschuur.
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