When Riki Hokama came back to run for yet another term representing Lanai on the Maui County Council, some residents began to question if he was, in fact, living in that district.

Maui County locator map

Some residents said they hadn’t seen the longtime politician much on the island. Hokama, who’d served for two decades as the Lanai member on the council, had spent much of the last year working for the Maui County mayor’s office and co-owned a home less than a half-mile from the government building in Wailuku.

But at the time, Hokama’s home in Lanai City was considered his primary residence, according to county records. It’s where he received a Maui County homeowner exemption, a tax break aimed at lowering full-time residents’ tax bills.

Recently, however, online county tax records were changed to show that Hokama’s Lanai property is now listed as “non-owner-occupied” — the status often given to properties where owners only live part time. Documents show the county in June had asked Hokama for information to prove he qualified for the homeowner exemption.

Although a tax classification alone doesn’t decide a person’s residency, the tax record changes are once again fueling speculation among residents about whether Hokama is actually a resident of the place where he’s running for office.

Maui County Council candidate Riki Hokama, who’s campaigning for the Lanai seat, claimed a homeowner’s property tax exemption for his 1935 plantation home on 5th Street in Lanai City. But some neighbors insist he has not lived there for years. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

But with only three weeks left until voters start receiving their mail-in ballots for the general election, in which Maui County residents will choose between Hokama and current council member Gabe Johnson, it’s unclear if the matter will be resolved before then.

“If (officials) disqualify him, he shouldn’t be on the ballot,” said Butch Gima, a longtime Lanai resident who filed a complaint with the county clerk about Hokama’s residency status. “But I think it’s too late.”

Under county law, a candidate must be a resident of the district for which they are seeking a Maui County Council seat for at least a year before running for that office. According to the county, someone’s residence is defined as the “place in which that person’s habitation is fixed, and to which, whenever the person is absent, the person has the intention to return.”

In an interview Sunday, Hokama dismissed residents’ complaints about his residency as par for the course in politics, saying he has lots of support from longtime Lanai families, too.

He said it’s long been common for Lanai residents to work on another island, like Maui. When he was serving as a county council member, he said, most of the work was Monday through Friday on Maui. But he’d go home on weekends.

After he retired from the County Council in 2021, Hokama said he began spending more time on Maui because all of his doctors are on Maui and much of his family is there, too. He said he wanted to focus on his health and enjoying his retirement.

Asked how much time he spends on Maui versus Lanai, Hokama replied, “Right now, maybe it’s 60% on Maui and 40% on Lanai.”

“My community knows that,” he continued. “They know that I’ve always come home and it’s always been my home.”

When the tax letter arrived notifying him of the status change at his Lanai property, Hokama said he was on trips entertaining friends from the mainland. He plans to file an appeal and work on getting the homeowner exemption back, he said, but in the meantime, he went ahead and paid the higher amount so that there’s no issue with the tax bill not being paid.

This election marks the third time that Maui County voters will be asked to choose whether they want Hokama or Johnson to represent them in the Lanai council seat.

Johnson, who was elected to his first term in 2020, said he spends the majority of his time on Lanai and usually comes to Maui for two to four days every other week to attend government meetings.

Johnson said he would like to spend more time on Maui, but that’s been difficult over the last two years because of pandemic restrictions and the lack of affordable places to stay. He said he also knows that to represent a community, you need to spend time there.

“It’s important to let the Lanai people know that you’re living there and you know their issues,” Johnson said. “If they don’t ever see you, how are they going to explain to you that there’s a pothole in front of their home?”

“Not everybody is going to send an email,” he continued.

A String Of Complaints

A number of residents have challenged whether Riki Hokama lives on Lanai. JordanHelle

The recent challenges to Hokama’s residency stretch back to mid-June, shortly after he filed paperwork to run for office. Four residents of Maui and Lanai filed official complaints with the Maui County Clerk, the county’s chief election official, who then, under state law, has five days to look into the situation and reach a “preliminary decision.”

Over the course of the inquiry, Hokama provided documents like a bank statement sent to the Lanai home, jury duty summons, utility bills, letters from nine people attesting to his residency and proof of his homeowner exemption there, according to county records.

To be eligible for a homeowner exemption, Maui County residents must live in their homes 270 days out of the year. That’s also where Hokama was most recently registered to vote, according to voter registration data.

“Because Riki Hokama owns multiple properties, and because the only one receiving a homeowners property tax exemption is the property located at 438 5th Street, Lanai City, there is a presumption that that location is his place of residence,” the county clerk wrote in the June ruling.

The clerk’s preliminary decision said that the residents didn’t have enough to prove Hokama wasn’t a resident of Lanai. But they could appeal the decision to the Maui County Board of Registration — a three-member committee appointed by the governor that weighs in on challenges to residents’ eligibility to vote.

At least two Maui County residents who disputed Hokama’s residency appealed to the board this summer. But by the time the complaints reached the Board of Registration, one of the three positions on the board was vacant.

Usually, those boards meet every election day. But because the board had been missing a member since July, it wasn’t able to make decisions about challenges when it met on Aug. 13, the primary election day, according to elections officials.

Cindy McMillan, a spokesperson for the governor, said the state recently received an application from a Maui County resident interested in serving on the board and is now processing the application. She said staff had reached out to political parties to ask for help finding applicants because the board’s members can’t all be from the same political party.

“We understand the importance of this position and are doing all that we can to fill it by Election Day,” said McMillan.

The Board of Registration was unable to meet the day of the primary because it was down a member. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Board Of Registration Decides

Whenever the board does meet, its decision could have repercussions not only on Hokama’s eligibility to vote, but also his ability to run for office.

“In this case, if he’s deemed not to be a resident of Lanai, he will be disqualified to run for that particular council seat,” said Kathy Kaohu, the Maui County clerk.

And in the meantime, Kaohu is also looking into a new challenge to Hokama’s residency and has asked him to provide proof of residency and travel documentation to and from his Lanai home, according to county documents.

Hokama left the County Council in early 2021 after finishing his fifth consecutive two-year term and reaching his term limit. He was then hired on as an administrative assistant to the mayor, with a salary of $78,612, according to county salary data.

Starting in 2021, new term limit rules went into effect in Maui County, opening the door for Hokama to run again. He left his job with the county in May and pulled papers to run for office. But shortly after he announced his candidacy, residents began to raise questions about whether he was eligible to do so.

“Personally I have seen Riki on Lanai two times since 2002,” Maximino Renigado Jr. wrote in a complaint to the county clerk. “He is hardly here and I have never seen him at his house on 5th street. I have never seen him there doing yard work, laundry or home maintenance.”

Hokama is running against council member Gabe Johnson for the Lanai seat. 

Now, with ballots expected to arrive in Maui County residents’ mail boxes around Oct. 21, some residents are trying to do what they can to get the word out about what’s happening.

Butch Gima, who worked on Lanai as a social worker until he retired, recently filed a complaint in which he alleged that Hokama hasn’t lived full time on Lanai for years.

He urged government officials to investigate whether Hokama has been a continuous resident leading up to the election or if he had been living in the other properties he owns on Maui. Since filing his complaint in August, he’s also called a number of county officials, the state elections office and plans to reach out to organizations that have endorsed Hokama.

Although there’s been a lot of confusion over the process to challenge Hokama’s residency — and what it might take to remove his name from the ballot — what has been made clear to Gima is that the burden is on residents to make sure governments see their complaints through.

“I have personally asked Riki to either move back to Lanai to properly run for the Lanai seat or run for the seat on Maui island from the district he resides in,” Gima wrote in his complaint.

Besides deciding the Lanai county council race, voters across Maui, Molokai and Lanai are tasked this November with choosing the candidates they think are best qualified to serve in the eight other council seats. Maui County voters will also vote on who they think should serve as mayor to lead the $1 billion county government as well as a number of amendments to the county charter.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Read the Maui County clerk’s recent letter to Hokama below:

An Important Note

If you consider nonprofit, independent news to be an essential service that helps keep our community informed, please include Civil Beat among your year-end contributions.

And for those who can, consider supporting us with a monthly gift, which helps keep our content free for those who need it most.

This year, we are making it our goal to raise $225,000 in reader support by December 31, to support our news coverage statewide and throughout the Pacific. Are you ready to help us continue this work?

About the Author