Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 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 the Maui County Council Molokai District. The other candidate is John Pele.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the General Election Ballot.

Candidate for Maui County Council Molokai District

Keani Rawlins-Fernandez
Party Nonpartisan
Age 39
Occupation Maui County Council member
Residence Molokai

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

Ex-officio nonvoting member, Maui Economic Development Board; board director, Office of Hawaiian Affairs Native Hawaiian Revolving Loan Fund; president, Ho‘olehua Hawaiian Civic Club; Po‘o, Kawela Moku, ‘Aha Kiole o Molokai; member, Ho‘olehua Homestead Agriculture Association; member, Molokai Canoe Club.

1. What is the biggest issue facing Maui County, and what would you do about it? 

The biggest issue will always be the battle to maintain a democracy of the people; electing leaders who have the political will to keep the people’s interest at heart and build community power through systems that promote clear communication, transparency and accountability.

While the issues of housing, water, socioeconomic equity and the protection of our natural and cultural resources will likely rise to the top in legislation, the key underlying factor is how we make decisions and whose interests are protected when those decisions are made. We must uplift and empower the voices of our community, specifically our residents, generational families and those with an intimate connection to this aina.

I have made inspiring civic engagement a high priority by providing monthly town hall meetings, spearheading the transition of virtual council meetings that also livestream on social media, and participating on panels that enabled me to connect with broader audiences, especially our youth.

As our population grows and shifts, advancements in thinking and technology influence our economy, and investments in education ebb and flow, we must be mindful that our level of involvement will determine how we develop and evolve.

2. In the last two years alone, the median sales price of a Maui home has shot up almost $400,000, driven by a surge of out-of-state buyers during the pandemic. What can the county do to ensure that families aren’t priced out? 

The problem is how housing is used. Homes here have been increasingly used as lucrative investments, vacation rentals or lie vacant for most of the year by the financially privileged.

To combat this, we need to keep residents in their homes, disincentivize the high market turnover, and partner with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and nonprofit developers to build units to house residents.

We can keep residents in their homes by providing tax relief for owner-occupied properties and long-term rentals, as well as keep generational families on their ancestral land through my Aina Kupuna and Aina Ohana legislation.

Simultaneously, increasing property taxes on investment and vacant properties that have diminished our long-term housing stock will reduce the profit margin and deter investors looking to buy-and-flip housing.

The county can better collaborate with DHHL by having a liaison to ensure that planning and permitting are expedited and establish a DHHL seat on the board of water supply to ensure water infrastructure is provided.

The county can also partner with nonprofit developers to build affordable rentals on county-owned parcels we identified to build rentals and for-sale housing that our residents can afford and will remain as owner-occupied parcels.

3. In recent years, there has been a significant push to reform law enforcement and beef up oversight of police. What would you do specifically to increase oversight of local law enforcement? Are you satisfied with the Maui Police Department and the Maui Police Commission?

When any individual or entity is given extreme power, the measure of accountability and transparency must be just as extreme. Policing is part of the criminal justice system that we should always seek to improve as we learn from policies that worked and those that didn’t.

I think the Maui County Police Commission is doing a fantastic job! With more kuleana this ambitious commission has been willing to take on, I would be supportive of additional support staff to accomplish their objectives and reduce the amount of work our volunteer commissioners have been doing.

Through the urging of the Civil Beat Law Center, the commission conducted a first-ever open interview process in selecting the new police chief. I fully supported the commission’s selection of John Pelletier and have been impressed with the work he has already accomplished in his short time on the job.

For example, the chief immediately established a Multicultural Advisory Counsel, composed of community members representing different groups within the community alongside those who have historically been disenfranchised, marginalized and oppressed to build bridges of communication, understanding, trust and transparency between the community and the department. I believe this will help prevent abuse of power and corruption.

4. The Maui County Council recently passed a temporary moratorium on the construction of new hotels and other visitor accommodations and will over the next several months decide whether to make it permanent. Do you support capping the number of hotels and visitor lodgings on Maui? Why or why not?

As the author of this legislation, I’d disagree that the caps bill is a permanent moratorium, rather, it’s a mechanism to control the number of transient accommodations, no different than the law governing short-term rentals and B&Bs in residential zoned areas.

Residents have been clear in their demand for immediate action to manage tourism in Maui County, and the council responded with a new transient accommodation moratorium, the Tourism Management and Economic Development Temporary Investigative Group, and several proposals that resulted from its deliberations that aim to mitigate future impacts, while supplementing with alternate industry revenue sources.

By maintaining tourist accommodations at the current level, we can effectively preserve the legally allowed number of transient accommodations, while simultaneously strengthening enforcement and prohibiting the pervasive camper-van vacation rentals.

This legislation was expedited for transmission to the various planning commissions for their consideration, and as an opportunity for further community participation. Once passed, it will end the moratorium intended to be a short-lived, temporary hold on transient accommodation growth, while the promised permanent solution was developed. This is a huge step in the right direction, and is one of many proposals that will be heard by this council in the coming months.

5. Do you feel the governor and Legislature appreciate the issues of Maui County, or are they too focused on Honolulu and Oahu? How would you change that?

Yes, the state government is very Oahu-centric. As many decision-makers are from or live on Oahu; the governor, majority of legislators, all state department heads, it’s not hard to understand the reason for the Oahu-centricity.

Having a governor from Hawaii island would make it easier for the head of the executive branch to relate to challenges we experience, and the creativity sometimes required to provide solutions. I would continue to work with our representatives on the state boards and commissions and testify, when needed, to ensure we are included in decisions.

For the legislative branch, I would ensure Maui County’s needs are met by continuing to build upon my relationships at the Legislature and find mutually beneficial projects to work together on as much as possible. We also have the Hawaii State Association of Counties, a collaboration of our county councils, which provides us a stronger voice during the legislative session. Investing into HSAC staffing has increased our effectiveness by working with legislators and better advancing our proposed legislation.

6. Do you think the County of Maui should do more to manage water resources that were long controlled by plantations? Why or why not?

Absolutely, because e ola i ka wai: Water is life. There was a time when you could not distinguish between government officials and plantation executives. Plantation business owners ran Hawaii, but that time has now passed, and it’s time to put decision-making power back into the hands of the community, as a public trust.

The two particular systems in Na Wai Eha and East Maui have oppressed the community for far too long. In a self-destructive capitalistic system, production costs are externalized onto the environment, increasing the cost to the collective, like the dewatering of streams and drying up of loi, causing the displacement of kanaka in those areas.

Council member Shane Sinenci introduced a proposal to develop community water authorities to empower the voices of the communities where water has been diverted. This will promote a more aina momona approach to management.

7. Climate change is real and will force us to make tough decisions. What is the first thing Maui County should do to get in front of climate change rather than just reacting to it?

In 2019, the council supported my proposal to fund Phase 1 of a countywide climate change plan — not a study, a plan — starting with Molokai. We started with Molokai because the economic center, and much of the residential areas, are in SLR and flood inundation areas, and without large resorts along the shoreline, it makes it less complex than Maui.

We have learned that climate change in Hawaii looks like extended drought conditions, sudden rain bombs, sea level rise and erosion. An ahupuaa approach to management would be valuable, recognizing that everything is connected, from watersheds mauka to wetlands makai, and all in between, play a role in the ahupuaa. This approach would help to prevent mud floods from silting our reefs, to restore healthy forests that maximize aquifer recharge, and decreasing water use at resorts. Legislation that the council will take up this year focuses on designating cultural overlays and wetland overlays, as well as redesigning the county water rate structure.

Lastly, cultivating a transition away from fossil fuels to more renewable energy, that is community owned and managed, will reduce our carbon footprint, and provide more stable energy prices, while reinvesting in our communities.

8. It’s estimated that up to a thousand people might be homeless on Maui on any given day. What do you think needs to be changed to help people get into housing, and stay housed?

The population of unsheltered individuals will continue to persist and grow, if leaders continue to approach houselessness as the problem, rather than a symptom of systemic problems.

Recently, rent has skyrocketed to unaffordable levels. Increasing supply of rentals can help to prevent the market from bearing unaffordable rents. Legislation I introduced went into effect this year incentivizing property owners to offer their second home or ohana unit as rentals.

Logistically, it’s easier to keep people in housing than work to get them back into housing. Therefore, it’s imperative to provide safety nets, like rental assistance the county provides to address financial crises, such as losing a job, medical bills or other unexpected emergencies.

Many houseless are kanaka. Government has not done enough to help DHHL achieve its constitutional mandate of returning kanaka to aina. My collaboration with DHHL resulted in the removal of regulatory hurdles not intended to affect DHHL’s ability to build housing.

Lastly, mental health is an often-cited problem without addressing the cause. For many kanaka, the state has yet to help heal inter-generational trauma caused by the theft of the government, land and resources kanaka had kuleana to, continual displacement of communities, or appropriate investment in #AinaBack initiatives.

9. Traffic is getting worse on the island of Maui, and different regions face different challenges. What would be your approach to improve Maui’s transportation problems?

The main problem with Maui’s transportation system is that the built environment is one that is heavily automobile-dependent. A more robust public transportation system will increase ridership in residents and get more rental cars off the road.

The spike in gas prices caused by corporations’ record-breaking profiteering has shown how quickly driving can become unaffordable, and while it’s difficult to move away from a car-dominated lifestyle with high-carbon emissions and the car-culture feedback loops, we must.

Building a sufficient public transportation system is often a chicken/egg problem. We don’t have more buses because there aren’t enough riders, but people don’t want to take the bus because there aren’t enough buses. Public transportation must be convenient, reliable, affordable with high frequency. Furthermore, we utilize technology, like the app called whim, where it connects all modes of transportation to get a person to their destination fastest.

With the political will and leadership, we will invest to the level necessary to transform the public transportation system.

10. 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 Maui County. Be innovative, but be specific.

I ka wa ma mua, i ka wa ma hope: Community is the bedrock of our home. As we reach forward, we must always reach back, to ensure we are all moving together.

We must sit at the feet of our kupuna, and soak up all their wisdom; stand shoulder to shoulder united with makua to do the hard work; uplift our next generation to innovate a better future.

None of my proposed solutions above can be accomplished without community, without each other. My “big idea” is a foundational idea of investing in community. Keeping families home, allowing kupuna to age in place, and opio to flourish.

As a policymaker, I’ve allocated funding to support nonprofits in the trenches, new positions in our departments to better serve our residents, and grants to develop our workforce and small businesses. Without our people, positions would remain vacant, nonprofits stagnant and businesses (are left) without a workforce.

We must be more mindful in how we design and build our systems, integrating feedback from our youth, and investing in them appropriately. Sometimes the solution is going back to the fundamentals of building and maintaining relationships, and ensuring we do more to bring our opio home.

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