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 Ed Justus, one of 14 candidates for seven positions on the Kauai County Council. Other candidates include Jade Battad, Addison Bulosan, Bernard Carvalho, Mason Chock, Felicia Cowden, Mike Dandurand, Billy DeCosta, Luke Evslin, Richard Fukushima, Arryl Kaneshiro, KipuKai Kuali’i, Wally Nishimura and Shirley Simbre-Medeiros.
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 cannot help but be a tourism destination — people all over the world are attracted to the culture, the beauty and the weather here. Once the doors to tourism are reopened, there is plenty of pent-up demand from people who want to vacation here. However, my concern is that if tourism does spring back, it may be all too easy for our political leaders to rest again on the dependency cushion of the tourist economy.
There is no good reason for Hawaii, and especially Kauai, to be so dependent. It is not smart, nor safe, for us to be so reliant on an external economy to function. Our agricultural lands are a golden opportunity for us to start with on diversifying our economy. With a year-round growing season, fertile soils, bountiful rainfall, many different micro-climates, we can grow almost anything — from desert crops to high-altitude cold weather fruits and more. We could grow enough food to feed the all the islands. Any excess we grow can be exported with the valuable Kauai and Hawaii branding name.
This is just one way immediately available to us to start balancing our economy — we just have to have the political will to make it happen.
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?
Most of the county’s budget is tied up in payroll and pensions. That is pretty much untouchable, except for the compensations paid to our elected officials. Therefore, what remains is about 10-15% of the budget that can be adjusted. The County of Kauai has a Cost Control Commission that does this exact job of examining the budget and finding ways to reduce and streamline costs to make the county function more cost-effectively. That is the group we would definitely consult with, as they are unpaid volunteers from the community who already have a passion for it.
The county’s fundamental source of revenue is property tax; there are two additional property tax measure we can enact to add revenue:
• Create a vacant ag land tax at a higher rate than active ag land (other counties already do this, and produce more agriculture than Kauai does).
• Look into raising the tax on conservation land, since the vast majority of land on Kauai is designated open space/conservation, and we cannot use it for anything else.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Kauai?
I think the county did a good job in handling the crisis. Having daily video reporting to the community was a great way to keep everyone updated on all the new emergency orders. We cannot anticipate everything, and we have to adjust when we can.
However, as a small business owner, it did not go unnoticed that large corporate stores (Wal-Mart and Costco) were allowed to sell “non-essentials” because they also happened to sell “essentials.” I would have added a rule that made sure that “essential” businesses could only sell “essential” items, not sell everything else, too, at the expense of all of the ordered-shut “non-essential” small businesses.
While those of us who could not “work from home” were told we had to “make sacrifices,” all our elected officials continued to receive their regular salary. It would have meant a lot if they had voluntarily taken a reduction in pay (say, even only 25%) just to show that “we are all in this together.” It is easy to say, “we all have to make sacrifices” when one doesn’t have to sacrifice anything. I helped draft the Charter Amendment that allows our elected officials to take a pay reduction voluntarily.
4. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Kauai. What would you do to come to grips with this persistent problem?
I have been homeless. You do everything in your power to get out of that situation. “Homeless” people are not the problem. We have to honestly address the “problem” by calling it what it is, not lumping different groups together as “houseless.”
Hawaii has a “vagrant” problem. Vagrants are people who are intentionally homeless. Oftentimes, this choice is because they would rather spend their money on their vice (drugs, alcohol, etc.) than on the high cost of a home. Understandable; their addiction is their priority. It doesn’t mean we should enable it. Nor should we allow the monopolizing of our public parks either as their “home” while the rest of us work hard for ours.
Unfortunately, there are also vagrants who suffer from a mental illness, or combined with a drug abuse problem. This needs to be handled as a mental health problem, and we, county and state, must develop mental health facilities and supporting legislation to help these individuals become rehabilitated. Sometimes, all they need is an easily available medication to help improve their mental health and quality of life.
If we do nothing, this will later on become more overwhelming and even harder to handle.
5. 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 Kauai County? What should be done to improve policing and police accountability on Kauai? Should oversight of the police department be strengthened or reformed?
I think Kauai Police Department does an excellent job. As Chief Raybuck recently said, “We’ve made mistakes in the past, and I’m sure we will make mistakes in the future. But I am committed to be a partner with you in this community …”
When a person does horrific things, they must be personally held accountable for their crime against another human being. That is the entire foundation of justice. That is what allows society to function.
One of the most impressive things that KPD did to work to hold themselves accountable was the installation of body cameras on the officers. These cameras were required to be active when the office was on duty. This way, both the officer and the person an officer interacts with can be held accountable for their actions in a court of law.
Every police department should use this. It works. I recall in the task force, unfortunately KPD was getting severe pushback from the state (and some of the other counties) against their use of body cameras. I 100% support their use, especially as a tool for assisting police oversight and accountability.
6. 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 do not agree with Gov. Ige’s decision to suspend open government laws. The government exists to serve the people, not itself. In a time when the public needed to know as much information as possible to keep themselves safe, restricting the flow of information is counterproductive. It also can cause the public think the government is hiding malfeasance.
There are times when certain information cannot be released, especially as it relates to public safety. The Sunshine Laws dictate those criteria.
On the Charter Review Commission, I continuously tried to release to the public any closed “executive session” discussions and legal opinions we received, so long as they didn’t conflict with the rules of the Sunshine Law. I saw no need to hide anything if it did not put the county in any legal risk to do so. Many on the commission didn’t agree, some saying “If we set a precedent of releasing, people will say we are trying to hide something when we don’t release.” My feeling is the more you strive to provide the public with information as often as possible, the more they will trust your judgment when you cannot. The more open, the better.
7. What more should Kauai County be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
We must be prepared for whatever changes occur in the climate. We also must take care to protect not to infringe on the rights of the people. With sea level rise, there are those who still knowingly purchase coastal homes where estimates say they will no longer exist eventually. If they insist on taking that risk, it’s their right to do so. However, those who already have homes in coastal zones that cannot afford to make the transition, the county can assist as a matter of public safety.
Also, major polluters, like China and other developing nations, are the ones contributing to the vast majority of our environmental problems. We can help by having the county purchase materials from our own country, prioritizing Hawaii/Kauai vendors first. This way, we are supporting those who make the effort to protect our environment, and it benefits our own economy, too. It may cost a little more, but the result is worth it.
Another is bringing back agriculture. One acre of corn removes 8 tons of CO2 in a single growing season. The guinea grass that covers our unused agricultural lands removes only a small fraction of that amount in the same time period.
8. 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.
This crisis I believe has awoken the desire to finally focus on diversifying and balancing our economy. It is not sustainable for us to have our economy be so reliant on tourism. Nor is it safe for us to continue to rely on importing so many of our essential necessities, especially foods.
We must bring back agriculture, not just to balance our economy, but as a public safety measure and recognize it as critical infrastructure. We are geographically isolated, thousands of miles away from everything. If this crisis was worse, such as a super-infectious highly fatal disease, where absolutely nothing could come in, our food supplies would not last very long.
We must have the means to feed ourselves in preparation for long-term emergencies, because we now see clearly they can and do happen, and this may not be the last. We have the ability in Hawaii to follow the New Zealand model which has already proven itself to be successful, adjusting it to our needs and our environment. We have so much potential here and I know we can make it happen.
9. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Kauai County does not have districts right now — all council members are elected at-large. However, as owner of Kauai’s only bookstore in Hanapepe, which I started 15 years ago, I can speak to some issues on the Westside.
For many years I have been advocating for the county and state to provide newer incentives to help revitalize our small business areas here. In Hanapepe, we have many vacant or dilapidated buildings in desperate need of renovation or rebuilding from damage by Hurricane Iniki in 1992. The community wants to see their once-bustling small business towns active again.
At the county level, we can offer fast-track permitting processes, infrastructure assistance, and temporarily reduced property tax rates for those engaged in rebuilding these areas. There are other ways we can explore, like temporary public-private partnerships. The Historic Waimea Theater is a great example of county and private collaboration.
As far as the state-owned properties, we can work directly with our state representatives and the Governor’s Office to collaborate on making these empty lots places that can be made available and brought back to life. An active community is a healthy community, and people have a lot of pride in the place they call home.