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 Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, candidate for Maui County Council Molokai District representing Hana, Keanae and Kailua. The other candidate is Stacy Crivello.
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?
Public sentiment is clear: our state has relied too heavily, for too long upon the tourism industry. Economic diversification is necessary, lest we experience this devastation time and again. Tourism is unstable, affected by uncontrollable external conditions. We saw this in 2001 from 9/11, in the economic recession of 2008, and now from this global pandemic, where Maui was hit hardest, since over 30% of jobs were directly related to tourism.
Hawaii has secured its reputation as a highly coveted destination, and tourists will flock without promotional investment. The more pressing issue at the forefront of people’s minds is how will we manage tourism into the future? Most agree that pre-pandemic visitor numbers were damaging, unsustainable, and not the desired standard moving forward.
By focusing our investments in consistent industry assets, such as health care, agriculture, technology and skilled trades, the resulting benefit to the larger community will be independence and security during times of crisis. Establishing a strong local health-care workforce would greatly reduce the likelihood of our needing worker aid from the continental U.S. Successful expansion of local farming operations would provide food security, eliminating the collective anxiety that ensues when shipping is impacted during natural disasters.
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?
As our council’s Economic Development and Budget Committee chair, addressing budget revenue shortfalls from the state and county were a reality this budget session. The council’s adopted $816.5 million budget reduced the mayor’s proposed budget by approximately $53 million, while adding aid for residents and businesses to help sustain the impacts of COVID-19.
We anticipated receiving zero state transient accommodation tax and a revenue shortfall of $16 million for water, sewage and solid waste, since hotels have been unable to operate; and shortfalls in the highway fund, with less fuel being used by residents and rental cars.
While many other government bodies across the globe shut down, I pushed forward, working tirelessly to implement an online budget process, which fulfilled our mission to maintain public participation, accepting oral testimony throughout the budget process.
The pandemic has signaled an urgent obligation to shift our energy and assets, investing in sustainable industries and become a self-reliant, stable circular economy. Examining our expenses and cost savings enabled expenditure prioritization, nullifying the need to increase revenue through real property tax. In fact, we were able to reduce residential property tax for most tax classes to help offset COVID impacts for families and businesses.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Maui?
In general, I would put more emphasis on public education, and would love to help implement providing comprehensive daily updates with helpful resources, tools and information to assist the public’s navigation of the current financial turmoil they are experiencing. Free online workshops could be offered by financial experts, in partnership with the county, to teach homeowners and small business owners expert tips to help them weather this financial storm.
I would like to have intermediaries available to negotiate landlord-tenant concerns. A Zoom helpline and webinar series that could offer education for homeowner and tenant rights in general and especially through COVID. A public response team with subject matter experts would be a great way to help answer calls and questions from the community.
This is by no means the last we have seen of COVID, and I plan to push forward with these goals in mind. As a community we need to continue to be mindful and not get too lackadaisical in our daily lives. Wearing masks, social distancing, and curbing out-of-state air travel are still pertinent to avoid flare-ups and the anticipated second wave projected for the fall.
4. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Maui. What would you do to come to grips with this persistent problem?
I am a strong advocate for substantially increasing government investment in expanding social services, so the appropriate personnel are positioned to offer outreach and resources for those who are unsheltered, rather than the current method used with police sweeps.
The population of unsheltered individuals will continue to persist and grow, as long as society continues to view houselessness as the problem, rather than as a symptom of much larger problems.
To address this, we must empower our unsheltered community to have a voice in decision-making that impacts their lives. I introduced legislation that would establish a new “Commission on Healing Solutions for Homelessness” as one way to engage our unsheltered community and help decision-makers and service providers develop creative legislative solutions that address our community’s needs holistically.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green has been working on building using the “Kauhale,” meaning “village,” construction model, which I support. The Kauhale concept is a traditional, cultural model of housing consisting of tiny home clusters with communal areas for restrooms, cooking and gathering. This model takes into consideration that simply having a roof over one’s head does not ensure transitional success. Kauhale are meant to foster a sense of community and belonging.
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 should always seek ways to improve our criminal justice system, including policing. We’re in a transformational moment, and it’s important not to squander this opportunity for lasting reform, starting with really listening to people who are directly impacted.
To their credit, unlike police departments in other states, Maui Police Department is nationally accredited, which means it meets national standards developed by law enforcement professionals and they added a new on-staff psychologist this budget, for mental health well-being.
Some ideas for reform include: shifting social issues, like mental health issues, homelessness, domestic violence,and substance abuse, from the police to social service workers; conducting the psychological test first, instead of last, during recruitment; and re-examining the psychological test and the appropriateness of qualified immunity; ensuring our police commissions consist of citizens who take their kuleana seriously, and amending the charter to enable the constituency to elect our county prosecutor, like all the other Hawaii counties.
Police officers should connect with our people by interacting more personally in the communities they serve. On Molokai, our community requested patrolling on bicycles, as a way to enhance human interactions. Supporting our police and communities of color don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
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?
Proudly, Maui Council operated as if the Sunshine Law were still in effect during COVID. Transparency in government is of paramount importance to me, and while I do agree that government bodies should continue to make requested information public, there are other antiquated portions of Sunshine Law where amendments are required to enable decision-making bodies to conduct public hearings remotely.
Having had the foresight to initiate the legislative branch’s transition from the county building to home offices before social distancing or quarantining were implemented, I requested and organized the move to ensure all legislative branch personnel had required equipment and were comfortable understanding remote capabilities, to conduct our budget deliberations online, for the first time ever. The first in the state too!
There were two sections of Sunshine Law that would have made it impossible to operate during remote meetings: 1) Listing posted agendas with members’ private addresses as testimony locations during public meetings; and 2) Requiring meetings to adjourn, rather than recess, if any member lost connection. Without Sunshine Law’s suspension, our remote deliberations, complete with public participation, would not have been possible. It is critical those amendments are made to ensure the success of remote deliberations moving forward.
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?
This is an important question, because it will take all of us together to address the climate crisis, reducing our carbon footprint, and mitigating the impacts of our previous behavior. The Maui council has made climate change a high priority with the creation of a new Climate Action and Resilience Committee, and allocated funding to establish a Climate Action Resiliency Office.
Last year, I formed a citizen group which hosted the first-ever Climate Resiliency Summit on Molokai. I also allocated funding for Phase I of a Countywide Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Adaptation and Resiliency Master Plan, starting with Molokai.
Planning is a key component in collaborating with the community; the climate resiliency model that I think will be most successful in Maui County begins with assessment: Proactively preparing for disasters by investing in the construction of shelters that can withstand hurricanes, establishing resiliency hubs, examining hazards such as sea level rise, and further assessing vulnerability and risks. Next we will investigate options, resulting in a list of solutions that stakeholders can help prioritize and plan; resulting in a comprehensive plan to fund and implement favored solutions. As we take action, we then monitor and review outcomes.
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.
We have a unique opportunity to reform systems intentionally designed to benefit those in power, and to not rush back into the abusive arms of the status quo.
With so much of the world experiencing civil unrest, demanding the examination of social constructs that have bred a system of patriarchy, which enabled the racism and oppression the disenfranchised experiences today, we have a rare chance at true transformation.
The future is female. This doesn’t mean “no men allowed,” rather signifying the need to uplift feminine qualities: valuing relationships and advocating for inclusivity, recognizing collective contributions, listening compassionately, focusing on solution-oriented communication, enacting creative ideas for action, and raising up the next generations to feel empowered and carry on that mission.
I agree with the Feminist Economic Recovery plan, that we must integrate the knowledge developed by marginalized communities that will help us to prioritize greater social well-being as a key factor to the economy. This includes increased child-care subsidies, instituting an equitable wage ratio for public service employees, and providing additional family leave opportunities.
Those who have historically experienced the structural inequalities of society, should now lead the way forward to a better future for us all.
9. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Currently, the most pressing issue for my district, and the entire world really, is surviving and then recovering from this global pandemic.
Ensuring our residents have their basic needs met, such as food, medicine and shelter, and helping them with income generation. Our council has invested in connecting people experiencing financial hardship with local agricultural organizations that purchase food directly from farmers to sell, or as donations made to local food banks. Since job loss is a direct result of COVID, some of the CARES Act funding can be utilized.
To help ease financial burdens, we have provided property tax relief to residents and local businesses through our newly adopted tiered tax structure that was created through the Tax Reform Temporary Investigative Group, which I chaired last year. In the next few months, we will complete our legislation to incentivize long-term rentals, over short-term accommodations, through property tax exemptions.
Now is the time to offer our residents the opportunity for free and subsidized training and education to step away from having multiple jobs in order to stay afloat, and into new, better-paying careers, such as in health care, or in technology, that provide workers the option to work remotely.