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 Felicia Cowden, 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, Ed Justus, 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?
Kauai has long needed to diversify our economy as we have become over-reliant on our tourism industry. This COVID-19 quarantine window created the necessary pause from receiving visitors allowing Kauai the opportunity to reset the structure of how we host our guests.
Balance is the key word welcoming the industry in a manner that does not overwhelm the communities. Creation of more tour and transport opportunities to take visitors to locations of interest without the reliance on a vehicle will ease traffic and parking congestion, as well as encourage the volume of travelers to locations and time windows in which they are most welcome.
Car rental companies are important partners for placing fleets in regional areas offering daily, even half-day, rentals will assist to incentivize the transport opportunities. A cultural education outreach that emphasizes the unique qualities of our island as our home, rather than advertising it as an exotic entertainment, is a step toward constructively inviting our visitors back. Branding the Garden Island as a location for eating locally grown, healthy foods while here and exporting boutique products like herbal medicines or supplements strengthens agriculture. Developing virtual work contributions to off-island companies is another economic possibility.
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?
Cutting expenses and increasing revenue are difficult goals while the natural flow of the crisis we are in is to need to increase expenses with an almost certain loss in revenue. We have already extended deferment of maintenance work and the purchase of new vehicles that can tolerate the wait in response to our COVID-19 economic shortfall. Allowing attrition of job positions without fresh hires can reduce costs.
Rather than considering furloughing staff, we could work with the unions to offer voluntary work and pay reductions for staff that may benefit by a lighter work schedule.
We have a track record of successful delivery on grant commitments and can work aggressively at applying for more of the competitive grant-funded opportunities that have become a new normal. We may need to utilize some of our existing county reserve funds.
The business of the county is to take care of our people. The more efficiently we can assist our people to be economically viable, like allowing people to work from home without imposing penalties, the more quickly the county economics will recover. Creating incremental freedoms that allow our existing residents to thrive is how to best ensure government solvency.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Kauai?
Mayor Kawakami did a valiant job at immediately containing Kauai’s exposure to a potentially deadly virus with creative methods to disincentivize the visitor arrivals ahead of Gov. Ige’s implementing the 14-day quarantine. My approach beyond that choice would have been to have taken earlier steps to encourage isolating families with vulnerable members while allowing healthy citizens greater freedom and allowing more businesses to reopen like construction and landscape maintenance.
Small business survivability would have been allowed greater capacity to offer take-out purchasing rather than to have only identified large national retailers as “essential,” who offered similar goods. Beach sitting would have been allowed as exercise for those with disabilities or injuries and for parents with very young children.
I would have re-assigned willing, under-utilized, remote working county staff to offer bridge assistance to the multitudes of people unable to access the state and federal funding. Public housing opportunities and social assistance would be directly brought to our houseless encampments to ensure effective enrollment.
My style would have been to more directly engage and welcome the participation of the County Council members in building solutions.
4. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Kauai. What would you do to come to grips on this persistent problem?
Homelessness has been increasing on Kauai for more than a decade. Kauai properties have become a financial instrument purchased for investment more than housing. That needs to stop. We need to create a legal form of a county conveyance tax that collects a substantial portion of the capital gains on a property sold in less than 10 years, for example, to discourage these purchases, placing the revenue in the housing revolving fund.
Pro-actively finding the houseless and signing them up for services before their condition is chronic has value. Utilizing funds to create equity partnerships with owners of homes committed to affordability is a pathway to keep people in homes. Potentially, mobile tiny housing encampments in partnership with state or private entities can be designed with incentives to allow for dignified, contributing living for residents rather than criminalizing poverty, which creates a cascade of mental illness, crime and adverse societal impacts. Permanent affordable living and upward mobility happens most effectively if these residents are near transportation hubs and walkable jobs.
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?
As council committee chair for Public Safety and Human Services, I have placed a high focus on police use-of-force with a watchful eye. We have had problems over the years, and I believe we have a high focus on continuous active improvement.
I began my responsibility from a position of mistrust. I attended the 13-week Citizens Police Academy, regularly attend the police commission meetings, as well as numerous community training and citizen/police efforts. The responsible use-of-force, de-escalation and duty-to-intervene emphasis is on-going with our police department, along with the use of body cameras. The specialized divisions in our CALEA (nationally) accredited police department has resulted in remarkable improvements in effectively solving violent crimes. Warm community outreach is becoming the norm, including direct supportive police involvement in the recent Black Lives Matter response to the unjust death of George Floyd.
My focus has extended to working with Kauai Community Correction Center, Hawaii Department of Public Safety and being on the National Association of Counties’ Justice & Public Safety Committee. What we need most is economic and social hope to solve the problems we face. Crime is an outcome of despair.
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?
The suspension of the open government laws was helpful in the beginning of the emergency situation, which required physical distancing and unfamiliar remote work by the staff in order to allow the function of government to continue.
The County Council’s process rapidly became more transparent as our staff figured out how to include remote testimonies both from the public, invited experts and department heads for briefings. Some strong and potentially enduring practices have resulted from this experience, which will enable future convenient participation from off-island experts and to allow remote testimony from citizens. This relaxing of rules has allowed for flexible open discussion with department heads to “brainstorm” solution possibilities. Removing some of the constraints requiring narrowly defined agenda items has fostered more holistic and effective decision making.
Remote meeting attendance in many ways is more convenient; it is also less effective. Most core business, such as our housing policy bill, has been deferred for a time when open government is restored. The reduction in publicly open policy events has hampered well-informed cross-communication, allowing more room for unfortunate policy “blind spots.” A council meeting is best that has full attendance of stakeholders.
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?
Sea level rise potential is an inherent consideration in all current county planning. The COVID-19 pandemic response has demonstrated how it is possible to change our habits of over-consumption and excessive travel that contribute to the global problem of environmental exhaustion which amplifies our climate crisis. A more locally based economy reduces our carbon impacts.
At an island level, we need to reclaim our heritage strategies of holistic watershed management and move away from continental development practices that ignore the natural balance of our ecosystems. Past practices of artificially draining, filling and building towns on top of river deltas and wetlands are at least as big of a problem as sea level rise. Invasive plant species, such as albizia trees, need to be managed as our riparian systems are affected by changing and eroding river banks, resulting in significant flood damage.
Ahupua`a land management was holistic from the mountain to the sea. Life centered around responsible stewardship of the land. Healthy reefs occur as a result of responsible land management. Kauai’s rapid success at developing renewable energy is remarkable.
Centering our island economies on military activities and tourism is Hawaii’s biggest contribution to the global environmental problem.
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.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed flaws in Hawaii’s systems that have long been ignored, such as over-dependence on tourism, deep economic inequity that is driven by selling the land to outside investors, antiquated software, and unaffordable infrastructure requirements. Hawaii’s land development and sales are directed at a global market available to the highest bidder. This creates an unhealthy cascade of policy interdependence and tolerance.
Our county tax structures are disproportionately funded by non-resident investors and the visitor industry. The state also feeds on the high financial movement and commerce that surrounds the land sales. Basic life needs become unattainable to the workers of Hawaii. Our people are more likely to be the servants than the hosts in their own islands.
We need to restructure this relationship with deterrents such as described in the homeless question above. A solution to the unemployment insurance distribution problem Hawaii experienced would be the strengthening of direct employer interface with the state DLIR, where employers can share their full list of furloughed staff to launch the application process requiring only confirmation from the worker. The problems associated with distributing unemployment monies during the COVID-19 shutdown was a disaster not to be repeated.
9. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Kauai? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue is our people’s inability to earn enough money to thrive. Many people raised in our economy barely survive by continuously working, sacrificing and often still not having enough to feel hope; some shift to illegal activities. A contrast is to observe what works to create a successful middle class by the people who move to the islands midway through their careers and are able to hold a lifestyle in which they can effectively provide for their families.
Many of them have become remote contributors continuing with their employment pathway they physically held in another location. Even young people, with no career history, move here working effectively in the virtual marketplace. This work requires little infrastructure beyond an effective internet and leaves minimal footprint on our environment. Our recent forced requirement for many people to work remotely may have opened awareness to this work possibility. Kauai needs a fresh high-speed undersea cable. We can work together with our experienced high-tech residents to develop training and work potential opportunities for lifelong residents to enter this area of employment as well as educating people to understand pathways for passive income.