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 Rebecca Villegas, a candidate for Hawaii County Council, District 7, covering a portion of Kealakekua, Kona Scenic Subdivision, Kainaliu, Honalo, Keauhou, Kahaluu, Holualoa, Kona Hillcrest, Pualani Estates, Sunset View, Kuakini Heights, Kona Vistas, Alii Heights, Kona Industrial, Lono Kona. There is one other candidate, Jane Clement.
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?
Hawaii is highly dependent on imports and tourism and extremely vulnerable to outside economic and environmental disturbances. The county Department of Research and Development is developing a Strategic Tourism Plan to incorporate community concerns and the impacts of tourism. Given recent events, I am focusing on diversifying economic resilience through: agriculture, alternative/renewable energy and specialized labor force.
I was extremely excited to see two large institutions, Kamehameha Schools and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, signed on to support the ideas and approaches of the Aina Aloha Economic Futures. As pivotal organizations in Hawaii’s economy, both institutions could play a huge role in moving us closer to an aina aloha future.
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?
Fortunately, our county is set to receive $80 million in CARES funding from the state that can act as a lifeboat to many struggling sectors in our community. I will be working hard to make sure businesses and community groups are aware of how to apply for grants and other opportunities that will become available through December 2020.
In a recent council session we were tasked with balancing the Hawaii County operating budget and faced massive shortfalls in finances. The administration got to work, dug deep and identified ways to cut budgets in each department by approximately 10%. In council we worked collaboratively to identify another account that could be cut, delinquent property taxes, in order to reduce the tax rate increase on second homes worth over $2 million.
There is revenue potential in turning our waste into wealth. We have opportunities to utilize resources we usually throw away/recycle remotely and turn them into assets.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on the Big Island?
I rallied hard in the onset of this crisis and represented the concerned voices of my constituents begging for the cruise ships to be turned away and flights to be stopped. It took a little longer than some would have liked, but our mayor followed the leadership of our governor and we protected ourselves as well as flattened the curve.
It’s easy to offer opinions in hindsight on how we could have done better. While none of us are experts at navigating a global pandemic, we have learned a lot in the last few months. We must continue to pay close attention to other nations’ responses and listen carefully to community concerns. I worked hard with local medical teams to set up free testing sites and community education resources.
We will continue to provide free testing for everyone and collaborate with local testing facilities, as well as require the use of face masks in public early. I support halting all interstate and international travel into our county at the outset of any pandemic, as most cases were travel-related. My hope is that our county can reopen to visitors and travelers once we have reliable pre-travel testing procedures in place.
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?
When it comes to Mauna Kea, I was very concerned by the processes followed by the state and county in 2019. The issue of jurisdiction of Mauna Kea Access Road is still to be decided. The current shortfalls in our global economy lead me to believe that one of the most controversial projects in our state will not move forward soon. Our current focus should be helping local small businesses and decreasing the unemployment rate by supporting jobs that do not negatively affect the environment.
5. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Hawaii island. What would you do to come to grips on this persistent problem?
Homelessness is a persistent challenge in our communities. Cost of living, lack of “affordable” housing, and access to services are some of the current priorities in our county. Likewise, many non-profits concurrently offer programs, rehabilitation and services for these folks and the county is very supportive of their efforts.
I worked hand in hand with volunteers and community groups to build the tiny houses recently built by the county at Makaeo. I will be sewing curtains and working with local artists to make these spaces welcoming to the vulnerable population who need them most. I continue to prioritize finding solutions for our homeless crises one of the top priorities of my role as a public servant.
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?
In light of recent events across the nation, I am pleased to see that our county has remained so peaceful. We are a melting pot of culture, race and beliefs. With that said there’s always room for improvement going forward. I respect our officers and what they do every day in our communities to keep us safe. We need to follow the First Amendment and find balance between community concern and police accountability. At the end of the day, even through the most divisive issues we face as a county, we all sit down at the same table. That’s Hawaii — that’s what makes us special.
Some suggestions for reform include the following
• Provide mental health and substance abuse experts to support the police department and officers to identify circumstances when other tactics besides police intervention are needed.
• Ban choke holds and strangleholds.
• Require de-escalation training.
• Require officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers, as well as report it.
• Require use of force continuum.
• Require comprehensive reporting each time an officer uses or threatens to use force.
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
The No. 1 concern of citizens nationwide regarding government is transparency. It is every elected officials’ responsibility to ensure that there is light in all corners of government. I stand firmly behind the Sunshine Law in our county. Democracy dies in darkness.
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?
During my first term in office I worked tirelessly to get legislation passed that would transition Hawaii County away from spraying toxic herbicides in our county parks, paths and roadways. It made it through council, only to be vetoed by the mayor. We were then shy one vote in council to override the veto. Healthy soils are our largest carbon reuptake resource. I plan to reintroduce the legislation in my next term and work even twice as hard to get it passed.
Last year presented the Hawaii County administration with the opportunity to participate with Oahu and Maui counties in a climate litigation case, that if won, would provide our municipality with the vital funding needed to move our infrastructure away from the coastline. Costs for moving the infrastructure are currently estimated to cost our county over $400 million, and that’s just for sea level rise. This estimate doesn’t include the cost of moving airports or harbors, or damages from increased severe weather occurrences. I will be presenting a resolution in the coming weeks requesting the administration to sign on to the case.
Our reefs have shown signs of returned life during this break caused by the COVID shutdown. It’s direct evidence that our ecosystems can and will recover if we give them the chance. I’m excited for the ban on certain sunscreen chemicals and how that will protect our reefs too. I was excited that the state voted to uphold the current ban on tropical fish collection, which also supports a return to a healthy reef ecosystem.
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.
We have an unprecedented opportunity to reboot our economy based on resilient, culturally pono and progressive priorities. I continue to learn from, connect with and be inspired by community groups including Aina Aloha Economic Futures and Uplift Hawaii.
I support incentivizing and/or mandating climate change adaption for new and redevelopment projects, especially in priority areas where sea-level rise is expected to occur and/or where infrastructure is scheduled to be updated. This includes a decentralized approach to water and wastewater management and supports a new “green” workforce.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
With the shutdown of our tourist economy the homeless crisis has been exposed at a new level. I’ve worked side by side with our Homeless Taskforce, West Hawaii Community Health Center and non-profits focused on serving this vulnerable community. I’ve helped build temporary tiny homes to transition people into until more permanent shelter can be provided. I’ve sewn hundreds of masks to share with those who couldn’t find or afford them. I’ve walked the streets with our health care providers handing out hygiene kits and COVID information. I’ve stood beside our courageous first responders at COVID testing sites.
Why homelessness over rebooting the economy? I don’t have control over when the governor will decide to allow visitors to return, and thus our tourist economy. However, in the interim, I can help the small businesses who have struggled and suffered from the effects our homeless crisis.
I am committed to supporting the diversification of our economy by establishing programs that support small farmers/food self-sufficiency, green new jobs/clean energy, affordable housing/updated building codes, and an equitable access to and distribution of resources.