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 Aja Eyre, candidate for Maui County Council representing Makawao, Haiku and Paia. The other candidate is Mike Molina.
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?
In Maui, we had one of the highest tourist rates per capita in the entire world prior to the pandemic. Our environment and our quality of life were suffering from the overextension of our natural resources to support tourism, while most tourist dollars left the island. We need to diversify our economy and rebuild tourism sustainably.
To diversify, our county can increase support of small businesses through policies that decrease the costs of operating, such as legislation that ensures affordable commercial, retail and agricultural space, streamlining permits and licensing procedures, decreasing taxes on small businesses, and assuring that the Visitors’ Bureau and Chamber of Commerce are addressing their needs.
As for tourism specifically, we need to make sure tourists feel safe when they do return. The county should send a clear message about what reopening will look like and how the businesses can develop specific safety protocols. Additionally, we need to address how our reopening will prioritize mitigating tourism and increasing per-visitor spending. We should increase direct taxes on tourists, and use them to lessen their environmental impact and improve residents’ quality of life. Working with the community and small businesses, we can direct more tourist dollars to local businesses.
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?
First of all, we waste a lot of money through our failure to embrace new technologies and implement them in our county’s operations. For example, our bidding processes, county inventory assets, permitting processes, utilities and open government attempts could all be streamlined through current technology. I would like to see those holes addressed immediately.
We should look for ways to cut the budget in these difficult times through policies like not rehiring after retiring or resigning county employees, decreasing funding to areas that do not support the Maui Island Plan, freezing raises for non-union employees (especially elected officials), and voting in the county manager position (on November’s ballot) to decrease personnel turnover in county departments.
New revenue should be accessed through taxes on visitors, such as adding parking fees at county beaches for visitors, increasing taxes on rental cars and rental car licenses, and adding a transit accommodation tax that the county keeps instead of sending most of it to the state. We should also increase the acquisition of federal grants and revenue sources for our environmental strengthening improvement projects.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Maui?
• Messaging: The way we addressed the pandemic was unclear, mixed and disheartening. The physical, mental, financial and emotional health of the residents while in lockdown should have been just as important as their health in regards to the virus, but the closures and reopenings had no direction. The amount of fear, both of the virus and of the impending economic disaster, should have been handled through assuring and clear messaging.
• Planning: From the beginning, we should have worked with the state to establish various plans according to how the pandemic progressed. For example, we could have planned according to the virus threat level, like a vog/air quality report, with accompanying closure recommendations, and each county would be assessed individually.We could have established clear and easy to understand outlines at the very beginning which still gave the government the ability to make adjustments according to trending outcomes.
• Reopening: The county still needs to provide guidance and a plan for reopening to visitors and normal business. Recent estimates expect that over 50% of Maui’s local businesses will not reopen after the pandemic. But if businesses knew what to expect and when, then they could adjust accordingly.
4. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Maui. What would you do to come to grips on this persistent problem?
We need to address affordable rentals. Most talk in the county concerns affordable housing as it relates to purchasable houses, but it is really our affordable rental efforts than have been making the biggest impact on getting our young adults and at-risk adults into safe and secure housing. Maui needs to address our glut of vacant commercial buildings and land and consider rezoning to allow affordable rental development in our established commercial areas so that the disenfranchised can more easily access work opportunities and services.
We need to address mental health and drug abuse services and boost resources there. Also, there are a number of effective and well-funded nonprofits and community organizations that have made great headway in lifting individuals and families out of drug and mental health crises, but too often have difficulty in coordinating their efforts with the county. I would like to see a stronger alliance there.
And, we need to look at our laws and see what can compassionately be reformed to increase positive interaction between helpers and the homeless, and decrease disregard for public safety and environmental concerns.
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 Maui County? What should be done to improve policing and police accountability on Maui? Should oversight of the police department be strengthened or reformed?
We would be short-sighted to think that this is not a problem in our county. We do have a very compassionate and community-driven police force, but we all need to do better to decrease our physical, conscious and subconscious discrimination against people of color. Greater transparency in personnel history in the police force is one step we could take, as well as greater transparency in operations, statistics and protocol. A community-run, elected police oversight board is also long overdue.
We should also immediately and succinctly take action at addressing and enacting the recommendations from national organizations that have studied the ways police force is misused, such as #8canwait. Although we do not have egregious instances of racially motivated police brutality in our county, it would be better to address it before we do.
And our budgets need to reflect a compromise of funding that recognizes that increased and effective educational, mental health, social services and affordable housing funding does more for a community to care for its at-risk population than increased incarceration and brutality.
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?
We have the technology and funding to ensure that this never happens again, and we as the people of Hawaii need to stand up to our state government in this regard. I absolutely disagree with this action and can imagine no reason why a state government would ever need to suspend open government laws.
The technology we have had for years, which has been in use heavily during the pandemic, makes it easy and cost-effective to broadcast all meetings, board meetings, committee meetings, hearings and sessions live, and to allow transmitted testimony, which would be an enormous boon for the outer island communities. We can also immediately post online computer-generated voice transcripts of such meetings.
Also, it is usually just a lack of organization on the government’s end that limits our access to public records and meetings. We need to make sure we are hiring directors for our departments that have the technical training and experience it takes to stay on top of their department’s data, records and open communication with their public.
7. What more should Maui County be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
Even though Maui County cannot stop climate change, there is so much we can do to prepare to mitigate the damage.
All of our county’s projects, capital improvement, planning and zoning need to address climate change. Our development in low-areas needs to be halted, and roads need to be rerouted to avoid coastal areas. We need to consider the few hundred yards inland from high-tide level as a buffer zone, where we focus on the native shoreline plants that naturally decrease erosion and filter runoff. Our coastal wetlands need to be repaired and protected, recognized as vital protection against higher waters and increased high-intensity storms.
We need to increase the overall health of our reefs so that they are more resilient to warmer, more acidic seas. We need to continue the work to eliminate reef-harmful pesticides and fertilizers on land, and nurture our buffering wetlands and coastal areas. We need to strictly enforce the oxybenzone ban and better educate visitors about reef-healthy etiquette. Invasive species in the water and on our shores (such as invasive fish, limu, animals, and mangroves) need to be eradicated so our reef-healthy endemic species can thrive and help keep our reefs resilient.
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.
My big idea is more local control. I would love to reinvent our islands to again be completely self-supporting, self-governing and self-sufficient.
I plan to increase involvement in local government, drawing in more of our youth and community, adding optimism, energy and ideas. This pandemic and the recent protests should awake people to the reality that their local government is what makes a difference in their everyday lives, and rather than being distracted by the national news cycle, we need to focus attention locally.
We need to diversify our economy, giving less to the national chains, hotels and airlines, and finding ways to keep our money in our state. We need to be supportive of small agriculture. The Jones Act should be repealed, so we can decrease outgoing shipping costs of our goods and agricultural products. We need to increase educational opportunities to keep our youth here and employed.
We need to send a clear message, through our legislation and use of hard-earned tax dollars, that we, as a people, are capable of providing for ourselves. The local governments need to be efficient and careful with the funds they gather and prioritize self-sufficiency and sustainability.
9. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The Makawao-Haiku-Paia area is incredibly vulnerable. We are vulnerable from a physical standpoint because we have failing roads, outdated and exposed utilities, and poor infrastructure planning. We are vulnerable as residents because we have limited access to health care and affordable residential, commercial and agricultural rentals. We have only one playground, share limited and outdated recreational facilities, and have few safe walkable or bikeable areas. Little has been done to address traffic or water issues, although development has been allowed to increase. We have been ignored, and with this pandemic and the increasing threat of catastrophic storms, our vulnerability is reaching crisis levels.
Part of the problem is that our seat on the council does not rely on our area’s votes to get elected. We need to amend the county charter to create a more representative council. We also need to create and empower elected community advisory boards that will make binding community plans. I am empathetic to and will support the other areas and islands in our county that have similarly been neglected. I will push the county to provide means by which our locals can improve their health, education, well-being and environment.