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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 Ikaika Marzo, candidate for Hawaii County mayor. The other candidate is Mitch Roth.
1. Hawaiʻi’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?
We’ve seen that relying on a single industry causes problems, whether it’s tourism or sugar cane. We still need tourism, the way our economy is built today, to get as many people back to work as quickly as possible. Nearly 37% of our people have filed for unemployment. But tourists will only return if they see that we are serious about keeping both our visitors and communities healthy, and that we have space to treat them if needed.
So, our COVID-19 policies are a huge factor, and I’ve posted my extensive science-based Guidelines to Reopen Our Community Safely on my website. Next, we need incentives for visitors to come back. One example is promoting our island within “COVID-19 green zones” made up of states and countries doing well against the pandemic.
Simultaneously, we get back to sustainability. Expanding our agriculture helps the whole state and could include novel crops like hemp that spark new jobs making textiles and biodegradable plastics. Second, taking care of our kupuna by expanding health and senior care, and making our medical system more robust.
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?
We will review all county services, and make sure that essential jobs like fire, police, water and health care support for COVID-19 are not interrupted. Where we do need cuts, we must collaborate with community groups and businesses to empower them to fill the gaps, as we did at The Hub in Pahoa during the 2018 lava flow. If we need to consider furloughs, my cabinet and I will be the first to cut our pay before we ask our community to do the same.
New revenue is tricky, because we just can’t raise property taxes anymore. Our county already pays the highest property tax relative to income in the state. We need to strengthen our economy to get more out of the GET, but also, we need new ideas like “sustainable tourism green fees,” which have helped in similar small regions like Venice, Bali, Galapagos and Cancun. Those funds could maintain our tourist areas as well as improve conservation, leaving more of our tax revenues for our residents’ needs. I’ve worked in tourism over a decade and shared this idea with thousands of visitors from all over the world. Their feedback is positive because this improves visitor experience, too.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on the Big Island?
Our county and state leaders were not on the same page, confusing and frustrating the people. A unified voice of leadership offering sound advice and guidance throughout would have lessened the burden on our community. I would have listened to the community to prevent frustrations with county representatives and joined the mayors on other islands in their request for stricter travel restrictions at the federal level. I would have had much clearer messaging with the community on the daily and weekly changes regarding COVID-19.
The national response to COVID-19 has left significant challenges for state and county governments to address. The stain on our economy and community has been severe, we need an exit plan. I have already released my COVID-19 strategy, Marzo Initial COVID-19 Framework (v 1.0), that can be found on my website.
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?
I played many roles on the mauna and listened to both sides of the TMT issue. My professional stance is that the county government does not have jurisdiction on Mauna Kea, similar to how the protests had nothing to do with astronomy. But Mauna Kea is also of Hawaii island, part of our community, and all our people have a relationship with that mountain, whether it’s cultural, scientific or usually both.
Hawaii County should still be part of the decision making on the Mauna, because it involves “us.” As mayor, I would have sat at the table only if I was involved in the real decisions being made that affected the mauna. It was poor management of the mauna that brought about the movement to block construction. The lack of transparency and the loss of trust are the biggest issue here. For any construction to restart on the mauna, our government will have to gain the trust back from the community.
5. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Hawaii island. What would you do to come to grips on this persistent problem?
We malama our homeless ohana. Much of our police force’s time is spent helping manage our homeless crisis — their time is taxpayer money — so financially, it makes sense to support a collaborative approach that includes mental health experts, organizations like Hope Services and following CDC guidelines to ensure public safety. Considering that homelessness is accompanied by factors like mental health, historic inequality and unaffordable housing, we need to immediately help homeless families with already-built housing and land due to DHHL waitlisted Native Hawaiians. This would free up homes islandwide that can be put toward solving family homelessness. Hawaiians die on this waitlist, and Hawaiians make up most of the current homeless population, so this first step goes to correct historic systematic inequality and keiki homelessness.
Our current system’s housing permit process is slower than a napping honu. In my first 100 days, I will reform the archaic permit process, and look at accepting a wider variety of housing blueprints. Our unique aina earned the Big Island the title, “The Healing Island.” Letʻs work together to establish work-trade-outdoor rehabilitation programs that are mutually beneficial to our both community and individuals by incorporating the healing aina to help nurture mental and physical health.
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?
It is important now more than ever to lead with aloha. I am sad, upset and alarmed that our nation is still dealing with racism and human rights at such a deep level. I always will welcome opportunities to improve any departments through training, policies and oversight. What I hear and see is that our police force here does a great job overall; yet, research supports the conclusion that more restrictive use of force standards reduce police violence and can save lives now. I am clear that my job as mayor, if elected, is to provide guidance and support where needed so Hawaii County may be the best “we” can be.
We need to be honest and acknowledge our island still struggles with racism, and that our police departments handle more issues than simply violence and crime. I support review of force policies with the goal of harm reduction, ensuring our system provides the best support to be able to succeed at the complex job, like supporting our community by possibly adding mental health experts into the force, finding ways to improve and review the job through oversight and accountability for our police officers.
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?
Our government needs to be 100% transparent. Our people have every right to know where our tax money goes. Since every decision the government makes affects the public, the public must be involved in and have clear viewing of all operations. Especially during a pandemic, where government decisions directly impact the health and lives of its people, we must be completely forthcoming with all information as it comes in and decisions as they are made. We must rebuild the trust between the people and their government, and building that trust is of utmost importance.
COVID-19 has created a new normal where many of our interactions are online, which is an opportunity for our county to set a new digital standard of quick online access to meetings and records. We need to continue to modernize our county and its use of technology, including exploring remote work capacities for county employees.
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?
With climate change, we can expect more storms, more flooding and more potential to disrupt our island’s imports and its crops. We need to be resilient in an increasingly unstable world, and that means investing in self-sustaining food production like farming, hunting and fishing as well as local processing, modernizing our Civil Defense to deal with more frequent and long-lasting challenges, and making sure that our renewable energy investments are well-managed and pono within their local communities.
Fixing our recycling and waste management program is a big priority so we don’t contribute to the problem and set a good example for our keiki. Finally, we need to protect our oceans and reefs and fight opportunistic invasive species.
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.
We cannot expect the tourism industry to bounce back anytime soon, and supply lines worldwide have come into question. Food security is more important than ever, both for the resilience of our island, and for economic opportunities for the immediate future. My one big idea would be to revisit ancient traditions that weave wisdom from our history with modern innovation and technology for a more self-sufficient future.
Hawaii island has the most land and coastline of any Hawaiian island, an ideal climate, and an abundance of natural resources which make us the ideal place to develop agriculture, more specifically aquaculture which can be placed anywhere. Collaboration with our own state’s premier resource facilities and experts and offering training would create jobs, helping our people land higher-paying jobs that they truly enjoy.
Local aquaculture can help address our reliance on food imports, since over 88% of Hawaiiʻs food is imported, including 49% of seafood. Segments of our very own population are food insecure or vulnerable to poor diet. Existing permitting and complex regulation challenges stand in the way yet can be overcome with proper government support and reform to grow this proven economically successful, culturally and environmentally sustainable industry.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing the Big Island? What will you do about it?
The economy — but let’s take a step back for a second, COVID-19 represents the most serious threat to Hawaii island since World War II, the 1918 pandemic, and the past epidemics in Hawaii. There is no practical way to separate the health and well-being of our community with economic well-being. We need long-term solutions to our economy that benefit our residents and engage social and environmental priorities. The impacts of a depression are far-reaching. We must find ways to diversify the economy while being able to sustain ourselves during the transition period. Innovative ideas and leadership are the key.
There appears to be a lack of a vision to guide the role of the county, services provided and resulting costs. We are seeing increases in salaries that set up some positions, such as mayor, to become the highest paid in the state. We are seeing real property tax rates for homeowners that are about twice those of Maui County, driving real affordability issues for our residents. My sustainability plan, available on my website, focuses on ensuring housing safety, food safety, health-care safety and educational safety for all residents.