Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 3 General 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 Heather Kimball, candidate for Hawaii County Council District 1 representing Puueo, Wainaku, Kaiwiki, Paukaa, Papaikou, Onomea, Pepeekeo, Honomu, Wailea, Hakalau, Ninole, Papaaloa, Laupahoehoe, Waipunalei, Ookala, Paauilo, Paauhau, Honokaa, Kukuihaele, Waipio, Ahualoa, portion of Kamuela, Pleasant Acres, Nani Waimea, Kamuela Highlands, Kamuela Lakeland, Kamuela Meadows and Kamuela Havens. The other candidate is Dominic Yagong.
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?
The COVID crisis in Hawaii is the third time in recent decades that our economy has suffered due to our over-reliance on tourism. While tourism will always be part of Hawaii’s economy, unmitigated growth in tourism has taxed our resources, become a burden to our residents and leaves us vulnerable to outside forces. As we move forward, we must focus on the quality of the visitor experience rather than the quantity of visitors and expand our economic base, so we are not so reliant on a single industry.
There is broad agreement that we need to diversify our economy and consensus that local agriculture, renewable energy, research and infrastructure projects should be the backbone of this diversification. However, the nature of the global economy was already changing prior to COVID.
Hawaii should position itself to respond to the economy that will be, not the economy that was. This means building infrastructure to allow Hawaii to become a hub for remote work, jobs that will allow our children to contribute to organizations around the globe, earn a living wage and allow them to stay in Hawaii.
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?
Modernization of services and improved digital infrastructure would enable county departments to reduce some of their budget needs to meet projected shortfalls in revenue. Small cuts countywide can add up, but there will also be a need to bring additional revenue into the county.
In the long term, the property tax system needs to be overhauled to make it more equitable to local residents, reduce the abuse of exemptions and limit speculation in our real estate market that drives up housing prices. In the short term, the county government should play a role in getting people back to work by supporting infrastructure projects and community-based initiatives. I support short-term bond funding for needed infrastructure projects and partnerships with community groups to bring grant funding into the county.
As a County Council member, one of my first initiatives will be to create a grant coordinator position within the county. This coordinator would not only be responsible for researching and writing grants on behalf of the county but will also be responsible for the mandated reporting. We do not want to miss out on opportunities to help our community because of paperwork.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on the Big Island?
Credit must be given to the residents of Hawaii island for their quick response to COVID-19. When asked to follow stay-at-home orders, wear masks and social distance, most everyone in our community complied. We all understood these efforts were not just about protecting ourselves but about protecting each other.
In our community response, we have seen the best of us. I want to acknowledge the many groups that stepped up to provide food, supplies and support for the most vulnerable members of our community. It has been heartwarming and inspiring to see our community come together.
The government’s response could have been more immediate and better coordinated between state and county officials. Hawaii County had some clear communication failures.
However, my biggest concern is that we do not heed the lessons learned during this crisis and return to the old normal without addressing the vulnerabilities and inequities that have become so apparent. This crisis is an opportunity to make our community more resilient to similar disruptions in the future. It will take all of us to make sure the sacrifices we have made in recent months result in real and lasting change.
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?
Authority to seek resolution regarding TMT should be given to the Hawaii County Council. The council currently has no jurisdiction with respect to Mauna Kea but it is the entity best positioned to represent the diverse sentiments of the Hawaii island community and to develop an inclusive strategy to move forward.
While our community is deeply divided on building the TMT, most agree that the Native Hawaiian community has been subjected to economic, social and environmental racism and that stewardship of Mauna Kea has been mismanaged for decades. Therefore, any solution must include actions to address these injustices and involve the Native Hawaiian community in the stewardship of Mauna Kea.
It is also recognized that astronomy in Hawaii provides valuable information to the global scientific community, local economic opportunities, and that under a democratic government, we must honor the processes put in place by our representative system.
We must find a way to share the mountain and collaborate on stewardship. Responsibility for determining how we move forwards should belong to Hawaii County. It is this community that is most impacted by the future of TMT and who must find a way to come together.
5. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Hawaii island. What would you do to come to grips on this persistent problem?
I support the Housing First approach to the issue of homelessness in our community. This approach has proven successful in other municipalities and is simply the right thing to do. Once we have provided for the basic human right to shelter, we must then address the direct causes of homelessness.
Hawaii County is severely under-served in the areas of mental health, domestic violence response and prevention, and substance abuse recovery. For example, Hawaii island has no residential treatment facilities for women or minors that accept MedQuest, yet people are more likely to recover when they are in their own communities.
We should also partner with local agencies and financial institutions to provide a source of emergency rental assistance for keeping people in their homes. Most of the families in Hawaii County are either living below the poverty line or ALICE (asset limited income constrained employed). Living paycheck to paycheck, means that one unexpected crisis, a car repair, a medical issue, can mean losing their home or being subjected to predatory lending. It is often only a small amount that is needed to keep a family from becoming homeless.
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?
The national protests around police violence and systematic racism have highlighted the need for all communities, including ours, to re-evaluate policing procedures for conscious and unconscious bias. Because of our diversity, we do a better job in Hawaii than in many parts of the country but there is more we can do to ensure racial justice in law enforcement.
I support efforts to boost funding for social service programs that reduce the need for police involvement. If we, as a community, can reduce the root causes that result in the need for police action and can focus on de-escalation, we will have more resources to put toward appropriate training and support for our officers.
There should be greater oversight of screening and training procedures in our departments and I also support the state effort to increase transparency with respect to disciplinary records. I do want to acknowledge that being a police officer is a difficult job. They are often exposed to situations the rest of us should be thankful we do not have to see. As part of evaluating our policing system, we must also ensure our officers are receiving the necessary support for their emotional and mental health.
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?
Government transparency and accountability is one of the top five concerns raised by constituents in my district. While I understand the governor’s decision, I do not agree with limiting the access to public records. Even prior to COVID, gaining access to public records and participating in open meetings was unnecessarily difficult.
There is clearly a need to enhance and improve digital access to public records. COVID-19 has also shown us that it is entirely possible to hold public meetings remotely. Fortunately, Hawaii County had much of the remote access infrastructure in place. However, there is still a significant need for better remote access in some of the more remote communities on our island.
The county government also needs to do a better job of meeting people where they are and providing a direct line of communication between the community and their elected representatives. As a council member, I would support empowering community groups in our county to serve a similar function as do the neighborhood boards on Oahu.
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 County Council is best suited to implement policy to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. There is no shortage of plans that provide realistic and actionable solutions. I encourage readers to see the recent Civil Beat article I co-authored: https://www.civilbeat.org/2020/06/think-b-i-g-think-big-island-green/.
The real questions should be how can we act more quickly on climate change and how do we do so in a way that promotes social and economic justice?
There are some bureaucratic changes needed, such as the definition of renewable energy. There are systematic changes such as the business model of our utilities and improving mass transit. But the most effective change will come from political and social will. Addressing climate change is a big and long-term task but it is doable and will provide other benefits for our community.
The public needs to be actively engaged in pushing for the advancement climate change policy. We need to elect leaders who will make this a priority. We must be willing to make changes to our own lifestyles and habits to help support these efforts. We do not want future generations asking why we did not act fast enough when we had the chance.
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.
COVID-19 is a crisis that has exposed our vulnerabilities and deepened the inequities in our society. It has also given us an opportunity to re-evaluate and recognize the tremendous capacity we already have in our communities.
Hawaii has operated on an economic model focused on extraction. We import dollars; they pass through our community and are then exported for goods and services. My Big Idea for Hawaii would be to redefine our economic model so we measure success not by the bottom line but by how well we are able to balance meeting the basic needs of our citizens for housing, food, income, meaningful work, health care and political voice while remaining within the limits of our resources. The focus needs to be on how we can keep the dollars circulating in our community and how we maintain the capacity of the system to provide for all the people in Hawaii over time.
For me, this starts with supporting the ingenuity of the local community and establishing an economy that is community driven, government enabled. There is powerful inertia to go back to the old normal. It will take all of us committing to put in the work to do this differently.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
I recently conducted an online voter survey and fear of contracting COVID-19 remains the top concern. Protecting the health and safety of our citizens from COVID-19 should be our priority.
With Hawaii’s limited ICU beds and ventilators, there was a real risk of overwhelming our capacity in the early days of the pandemic. While we were not unscathed, and my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones, Hawaii has fared far better than many other places. However, we are still at risk of an overwhelming outbreak if we do not remain vigilant.
As we open the state up to more travelers, we must make sure all testing and contact tracing is in place and we strictly enforce quarantine restrictions for incoming passengers. We must ensure adequate supplies of personal protective equipment for first responders and provide clear guidance to the public on the latest CDC recommendations for preventing further spread.
It may be some time before we return to normal and thousands may remain unemployed past the end of 2020. In addition to protecting against the spread of COVID in Hawaii, we must continue to work with community groups, ensuring that we meet the basic needs of our people.