Big Island voters had cast more ballots for Jennifer Kagiwada over Matthias Kusch to fill the only undecided Hawaii County Council seat on the general election ballot, according to preliminary results Tuesday.

The two faced each other in a runoff after neither received an outright majority in the Aug. 13 primary. The primary was an extremely tight race with Kagiwada beating Kusch by only 39 votes.

With 7,370 ballots counted on Tuesday night, Kagiwada was ahead with 48.6% of the vote and appeared poised to represent District 2, which covers downtown Hilo, Bayfront, University Heights, Konohana Gardens, Lanakila, Mohouli, Ainako and surrounding neighborhoods. Kusch had 45.1% of the vote.

“I’m feeling really good about it,” Kagiwada said after early returns came in.

Kagiwada said she’s not overly surprised by the vote count because she was getting lots of positive feedback as she campaigned door to door. But she said she won’t celebrate until the results are finalized.

Seats on the County Council are nonpartisan and run for two-year terms.

Kusch is a retired firefighter. Kagiwada works as a legislative aide to council member Heather Kimball. Both candidates said their top priorities are finding more affordable housing and solutions to homelessness.

Kusch said he’s obviously disappointed but figured the race would be close.

“I knew it was going to be a nail-biter,” he said.

Hawaii County Council candidates Matthias Kusch and Jennifer Kagiwada competed for a seat Tuesday. 

Charter Amendments

Hawaii island voters were asked to approve three charter amendments.

The first will increase the composition of the Board of Ethics from five members to seven. Voters were supporting the change with 54.1% in favor, 37.6% opposed, according to preliminary results.

The second would empower the county auditor to investigate allegations of fraud, waste or abuse within county government. It was on track to pass overwhelmingly with 79.1% of the vote.

The third charter amendment would create a youth commission. The amendment was also set to pass with 61.4% of the vote.

In terms of increasing the size of the Board of Ethics, an attorney for the board explained at a Committee on Governmental Operations, Relations and Economic Development meeting on May 17 that the charter amendment is designed to ensure greater likelihood that quorum can be met at board meetings. During the pandemic there were instances when meeting quorum proved problematic.

County Council member Sue Lee Loy sponsored the charter amendment in collaboration with the Board of Ethics.

Lee Loy told Civil Beat she had staff look into the size of the ethics boards in Maui and Kauai counties as well as the City and County of Honolulu. The Big Island’s board consisted of five members whereas the others have seven or nine members. In addition to making it easier to meet quorum at meetings, the charter amendment’s goal was to have an ethics board that is more representative of the size of the county’s government workforce.

The second charter amendment was put forward by council member Ashley Kierkiewicz. It’s an outgrowth of two hotlines established in January under a pilot project through June 2023. One hotline is for whistleblowers reporting alleged instances of abuse by county employees; the other is for tips about fraud and waste.

The hotlines emerged from a 2017 audit that found the county’s human resources department used questionable hiring practices that allowed widespread favoritism to be used rather than applicants’ qualifications.

The charter amendment is borne out of those hotlines and would expand the power of the auditor’s office to conduct investigations of fraud, waste and abuse complaints. The county auditor’s role is to conduct impartial financial and performance audits of county agencies, programs and operations. Since the hotline pilot program was started, the auditor has looked into 35 complaints and received voluntary compliance from responding departments, said Tyler Benner, county auditor, in an interview with Civil Beat.

With passage of the charter amendment, compliance will now be mandatory.

The third charter amendment would establish a youth commission consisting of up to 15 members between the ages of 14 and 24 years old. The goal is to integrate ideas and perspectives from youth into county government.

Council member Ashley Kierkiewicz introduced the proposal at a May 31 council meeting. At the time, Kierkiewicz said she was looking for a way for the County Council to intentionally find ways to “build up capacity of youth” and provide them with “opportunities to lead” and space to develop youth strategies in areas such as education, voting, recycling and mental health.

She said she’s interested in having youth envision and create public messaging campaigns to encourage civic involvement using social media tools like TikTok and Instagram.

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