Maui County’s new mayor and council formally took office on Monday in front of a packed audience of local residents and state dignitaries who turned out on the New Year’s Day holiday for the ceremonies.

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More than 1,000 Maui County residents and government leaders from across Hawaii crowded into the Maui Arts & Cultural Center Monday evening as Mayor Richard Bissen delivered his first address as the county’s top executive. The retired judge vowed to bridge community divides and uphold his campaign promises to bring housing for local families, grow the island’s water supply, protect the environment and steer an administration with a focus on “good governance.”

“We are ready to go to work, mindful of the needs of our diverse communities,” Bissen told the crowd.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen delivered his first address in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Earlier that morning, the council chambers were packed with citizens and elected officials including Gov. Josh Green and Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who traveled to Maui for the swearing in. Eight council members took the oath of office while the ninth member — former Council Chair Alice Lee from the Wailuku, Waihee and Waikapu district — was precluded from taking office due to a legal challenge to her election. A decision is pending before the Hawaii Supreme Court.

The six council members who won reelection to two-year terms are Gabe Johnson of Lanai, Tasha Kama of Kahului, Tamara Paltin of West Maui, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez of Molokai, Shane Sinenci of East Maui and Yuki Lei Sugimura of Upcountry. The two newcomers are Tom Cook of South Maui and Nohe Uʻu-Hodgins of Makawao-Haiku-Paia.

Eight council members took the oath of office Monday morning. The ninth, Alice Lee, is awaiting a Hawaii Supreme Court decision on a legal challenge to her eligibility. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The eight council members unanimously elected Kama to serve as council chair. During the campaign, Kama was endorsed by a wide range of organizations across the community’s political spectrum, from the progressive Maui Ohana Candidates group to the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association PAC.

“Council member Kama did receive broad support from all of our community members, and that’s who we serve here,” Rawlins-Fernandez said.

Although council members control the purse strings and make county laws, it’s the mayor — and the county administration as a whole — that launches new programs and runs the local government on a day-to-day basis on Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

Bissen pledged to focus his administration on “sensible and responsible spending,” while ushering in a new focus on innovation. He told the crowd that his administration is standing up a new “Office of Innovation,” which will focus on tackling climate change, moving the community toward food sovereignty and developing renewable energy sources.

Maui County Mayor Richard T. Bissen, Jr. took the oath of office from Judge Peter T. Cahill at a noon swearing in ceremony today.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen took the oath of office at noon, Monday. Courtesy: Richard Bissen Transition Team/2022

Bissen, who was elected with a commanding 60% of the vote over incumbent Michael Victorino, promised to overcome polarization that has plagued government and commit to forging partnerships to serve Maui, Molokai and Lanai’s diverse communities. He said his outlook on the world was shaped by his upbringing, being raised by Hawaiian parents. As mayor, he told the crowd, he will build on those beliefs that the collective community is more important than the individual.

“Ancient knowledge and practice have always been here. We just haven’t been listening,” Bissen said. “We can learn so much from our kupuna, and those people with local knowledge.”

The Missing Council Member

County election officials have not issued a certificate of election for Lee because of the lawsuit. The Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu race was the closest in the November election, with Lee leading her challenger, Noelani Ahia, by about 500 votes.

After the election, more than 30 local voters, including Ahia, sued Maui County, alleging the county’s top election official mishandled about 800 ballots.

Maui County has opposed the lawsuit, arguing that the concern raised in the lawsuit isn’t a valid reason for someone to challenge election results.

Photographs of the eight sworn-in Maui County Council members in the lobby of the county building. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Even if the Hawaii Supreme Court rules in the county’s favor, it still could take months for the questions over the Wailuku council seat to be resolved. State law says election results can’t be certified until after the challenges to the election are resolved and the appeal period has ended.

Because the lawsuit raised concerns about the federal constitution, either side would have 90 days to appeal the case, according to their attorney.

It’s unclear what will happen in the meantime. Maui County’s charter, the document that serves as the local government’s constitution, says the council can appoint someone to serve temporarily as a council member. If the council doesn’t do that within 30 days, the mayor can appoint someone to fill that vacancy.

In an interview, Lee said the lawsuit has “no merit.”

“We believe that this is a very frivolous case,” she said. “We’re expecting a favorable ruling.”

But in the meantime, she said, she hopes that the situation is resolved as quickly as possible.

“It will be hard to have eight members on the council – an even number – that’s why we have nine,” Lee said.

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

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