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 Aaron Chung, candidate for Hawaii County Council District 2 representing portions of South Hilo (downtown Hilo, Bayfront, Wailoa, portion of Waiakea Houselots, University Heights, Komohana Gardens, portion of Waiakea Uka, Lanakila, Mohouli, Ainako, Kaumana, Piihonoua, Wailuku, Waianuenue). The other candidate is William Halverson.
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?
It is clear that even if a total cure for coronavirus is found, tourism cannot reliably be counted upon to wiggle us out of jams like it did in the past because another type of virus might come popping up. While we certainly shouldn’t give up on tourism, a more balanced and diversified economic base is needed for our state. But we already knew or should have known that and maybe just needed a situation like this to shock us out of our comfort zone.
Specialty/quality (as opposed to large-scale) agriculture is an obvious industry we need to promote going forward. Astronomy is another. The inflow of capital relating to that industry far outweighs what goes out from our local economy. Moreover, astronomy as a stimulus for our educational system – both at the grade school and university levels – cannot be overstated.
We should revisit establishing our island as a health and wellness place. Finally, the new economy will be driven by the internet. In that regard, we need to create pathways to strengthen our digital infrastructure for the purpose of providing entrepreneurship and learning opportunities for our residents, among other things.
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?
On both sides it will be difficult. In terms of expenses, we don’t have much cushion. The Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Fund, provided for in our County Charter, takes 2 percent of our annual real property tax revenues right off the top, which amounts to over $8 million, and the state swiped $19 million in transient accommodations tax monies when the governor suspended the law which earmarks those funds for the counties in order to balance their own budget.
On the revenues side, much of what we are able to do (or unable to do) depends on what has been conferred to us by the state, primary among those being the authority to impose and collect real property taxes. Along those lines, we recently created a two-tiered tax system for high-end residential properties. which generated a few million bucks. It would be nice if the state finally agreed to give us a portion of traffic fines because right now everything goes to them. Does that make sense?
Finally, my colleague, Sue LeeLoy, spearheaded legislation which allows for businesses to advertise on county properties. More effort needs to be put forth to utilize that law
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on the Big Island?
The authority of the respective county councils in the area of emergency management is much limited during periods of declared emergency. By law, the primary responsibility for that rests with the overnor and mayors. For what little it was worth, though, our council made our voices known via non-binding resolutions. For example, we urged for stricter measures to be put into place after Mayor Kim’s early call for “business as usual.” At the same time, we were careful in our sensitivity to the tough situation those tasked with the decision-making responsibilities were in.
But if I had the power to do it, I would have made sure that the Department of Health was clear and consistent in their messaging to the public. At the beginning of the pandemic, every human being knew intuitively that widespread testing and monitoring was essential for flattening the curve. Yet the DOH was steadfast early on in declaring the uselessness of testing exposed but asymptomatic individuals. Then, when some state senators were exposed to an infected colleague, they were allowed to take tests with nary a peep from DOH. Then, a few weeks later, DOH changed its direction and called for testing of asymptomatic persons. Huh?
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 the construction of the TMT. I consider astronomy – and let’s be very clear: TMT is the crucial piece to the future success of that industry on our island – as being just a piece of a larger diversified economy puzzle. If for no other reason, though, astronomy has been the key contributor to our island’s improvement in STEM education. The people who work in that industry are the unsung heroes who have devoted countless hours providing enrichment in our grade school classrooms.
I wouldn’t have done anything differently. But if the question was, “What should have been done differently in the past year to resolve the issue?” I have three thoughts:
• The governor should not have sloughed off his responsibilities to Mayor Kim;
• TMT should have included local faces and voices to its decision-making team (the protesters have smartly created a cool vibe for their cause, while TMT remains faceless, which makes it/them an easy target);
• The protesters should be willing to compromise, and the kupuna – given the positions of respect that they hold within the movement – should in good faith responsibly dispel some of the misinformation being spread about the project.
5. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Hawaii island. What would you do to come to grips with this persistent problem?
It is clear that a concerted team effort needs to be put forth from the federal level down. Obviously that has not successfully occurred yet. From my perspective, the issue needs to be broken into the have-nots, can-nots and the will-nots.
For those of unfortunate financial circumstances, there is assistance. I’m not too concerned about our ability to help that group.
For those in the second category, the state needs to restore mental health funding that was cut during the early part of the decade. The development of satellite non-704 state hospitals (contrary to popular belief, the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe only houses those individuals in criminal cases awaiting a determination as to their fitness to proceed) in each of the neighbor islands should also be explored. Prior to its opening, there were actually indications that an aggressive move was going to be made by the Legislature in addressing that need. Unfortunately COVID came rolling around and doused any such plans.
Finally, for those who willfully break laws and make lives miserable for others, we just need to collectively get tough on them.
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?
While other eyes may view the landscape differently, I don’t see it as a present problem in Hawaii County. For better or for worse, in our county, unlike in big cities around the mainland, there is far less anonymity between police officers and the general community or, if you will, the law-breaking community.
Still, the potential for problems will always exist and must not be ignored. I believe that the police commission should be given more oversight powers than they presently have in addressing citizen complaints. Individual privacy rights need to be reasonably balanced with the broader community’s need for an employment system – not just for police, but at levels of employment – which allows for a fully informed vetting in the hiring and retention of employees. The public should deserve no less for its money.
Counseling and therapy must also be provided to officers on a regular basis. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that police officers have a tough job.
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 agree with the governor’s action. During this crisis, public safety was, and remains, the tantamount concern. As we can see right now around the country and even in our state, weakened restrictions and relaxed attitudes have caused spikes in virus-related cases. We must not lose sight of what our most important priority is at this time, and that is to protect our community and to save lives.
The governor’s suspension of the public meetings law (HRS chapter 92) carried with it the sensible proviso that “reasonable measures” be considered to allow public participation consistent with social distancing practices. While it is impossible to please everyone, I stand by our efforts at striking a balance between protecting both the safety of our community and the integrity of the democratic process. The governor also completely suspended the Uniform Information Practices Act (HRS chapter 92F). Although our County Clerk’s office was closed to the public for a short period of time, public records were still available for inspection and copying by appointment.
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?
The State of Hawaii is moving admirably toward the goals of its Clean Energy Initiative and lessening our carbon footprint. But no matter what we do, it will not be enough to offset the onslaught being brought on by the rest of the world.
We need to prepare ourselves for the inevitability of rising sea levels, coastal erosion, flooding and loss of infrastructure, which will probably require relocation of roadways and even communities. More frequent and intense hurricanes will also occur. We can, to a certain extent, implement planning techniques to avoid future exposures, but for those properties and improvements already within the affected zones, we unfortunately don’t have the kind of money that is needed to address those matters so we will need to seek federal assistance now.
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.
Let’s face it, much of what we can or would like to do for our state is constrained by the United States Constitution. That document needs to be reworked. It was put into place over 230 years. Times have changed. We are presently faced with economic inequality and a huge substance abuse and drug trafficking situation, among a lot of other things.
As it relates to our state, we are unable to reasonably control population growth. In terms of situations such as that presented by the coronavirus pandemic, we are not able to place restrictions on the inflow of overseas travelers, hence negating our ability to protect our residents by utilizing our geographic advantages.
I believe that the Constitution creates too much of an unbalanced emphasis on individual rights at the expense of the greater good. We need look no further than at how other countries have been able to handle the coronavirus outbreak in comparison to what is happening in the United States to illustrate my point. Redo the U.S. Constitution.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Aside from COVID-19 matters, it’s got to be roads, and the question should not be “what will we do about it?” but rather, “what have we done about it?” In that regard, the council has done a lot. We have provided the administration with all the financial resources it needs by raising fuel and general excise taxes, all with the simple expectation, among other things, that roads will get fixed.
I am sorry to say that I haven’t seen much happen yet. For the district that I represent, the fact that main thoroughfares such as Waianuenue, Kilauea/Keawe, and Kinoole have fallen into extreme disrepair is, quite frankly, inexcusable. We also recently authorized a $103 million council-initiated bond float to further assist the administration, but the county has not yet arrived at the underwriting stage. Still, the added benefit of this measure is that is was done in anticipation of an impending recession and will provide a job stimulus for our construction industry.