On Monday evening, in his first address as mayor, retired judge Richard Bissen pledged to an audience of more than a thousand people that he would work to overcome political divides and collaborate to solve Maui County’s most complicated social problems.

Maui County locator map

“It will take a collective willingness and a commitment for all of us to work together,” said Bissen, who’d been endorsed by leaders ranging from former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle to progressive former Maui County Council member Kelly King. “It will require compromise and mutual respect.”

There was an entirely different atmosphere in Council Chambers just 2 miles up the road. It was the first day on the job for the newly sworn-in group that was meeting to pick who would lead as council chair and vice chair. Also on the council’s agenda: enacting the rules that members follow during meetings, hiring key staff and choosing who would chair committees that steer the government’s path toward tackling Maui’s challenges, like the soaring cost of housing and protecting the county from the climate crisis.

But because of a lawsuit challenging the election of one of the nine members, Maui County is currently missing a council member. That has left the council for the time being with eight members, split evenly across the political divide. It meant that, over the course of Monday’s nearly six-hour meeting, the council members were only able to accomplish a fraction of what they’d planned as action stalled because of the 4-4 split.

Maui County Council members are largely split 4-4 as an election challenge keeps the ninth member out of a seat for the time being. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

“Because Maui got more ideologically divided … there’s not really a natural swing voter there,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa. “Someone who would be persuaded and say, ‘OK, I’m willing to compromise.'”

It’s unclear when that might change. The Hawaii Supreme Court is scheduled on Jan. 19 to hear oral arguments on the case that prevented former council chair Alice Lee from taking office for the Wailuku, Waihee and Waikapu district. The lawsuit — filed by 30 local voters including Noelani Ahia, her challenger — is asking Maui County to hold a new election.

Until everything is resolved, there’s concern that the 4-4 split could hinder the legislative body’s ability to do its job. In the months to come, council members are supposed to vet and approve the mayor’s appointees to lead county departments, start holding committee meetings and gear up for the intensive process to craft the county’s annual budget later this spring.

“The longer we delay, the longer our problems aren’t being solved.” — Council member Gabe Johnson

The council is elected to serve as the policymaking body that guides the $1 billion local government, which is run on a day-to-day basis by the mayor and his department heads. Council members earn about $80,000 per year, while the chair earns about $86,000 per year.

Although the council races are nonpartisan, meaning candidates don’t run as Democrats or Republicans, Maui’s council members have typically fallen on either side of the divide between those who are more progressive and those aligned with the island’s political establishment. In recent years, the council was made up of a progressive majority, but that changed after longtime council members Kelly King and Mike Molina announced they wouldn’t run for reelection and instead launched unsuccessful bids for mayor.

At present, the progressive side is made of up council members Gabe Johnson of Lanai, Tamara Paltin of West Maui, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez of Molokai and Shane Sinenci of East Maui. On the other side, council members Tasha Kama of Kahului and Yuki Lei Sugimura of Upcountry have been joined by first-time members Tom Cook of South Maui and Nohe Uʻu-Hodgins of Makawao-Haiku-Paia.

Only eight council members took the oath of office Monday morning. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Moore said there’s often a misconception among the general public that politicians can’t get along because of personal conflict, but usually that’s not the case. Instead, it comes down to power, he said, and whether elected officials believe they always need to take certain stances to represent the voters who elected them in the first place.

“The (U.S.) House is a perfect example of how when you have an ideologically divided legislative body, people are willing to take it pretty far, even when it means it’s embarrassing and they’re not able to do any work,” Moore said.

On Maui, Moore thinks there are only a couple things that might overcome that division. One possibility is an unexpected disaster strikes that’s so overwhelming that council members stop infighting. The more likely scenario, however, is that disappointment grows among constituents and they start voicing their concerns over the lack of progress, he said.

“Voters hate this kind of gamesmanship stuff,” Moore said.

‘We Need To Hit The Ground Running’

At least for the first hour of Monday’s meeting, the newly sworn-in council members agreed on one thing — that Kama, who represents Kahului, should serve as council chair. But the atmosphere changed quickly after Kama asked her colleagues if they would be willing to end the meeting early to attend Bissen’s inaugural gathering at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

Some council members backed Kama, saying that, because the new mayor and his department heads were also just settling into new jobs, it might be beneficial for the council to have more time to weigh decisions. Others urged the group to follow through on what they’d planned to discuss that day.

“We need to hit the ground running,” Johnson urged his colleagues. “There are crises. There are issues that we need to work on, and the longer we delay, the longer our problems aren’t being solved.”

The council members were able to agree on a few things — such as hiring key staff the council needs to operate — but postponed making more controversial decisions, including who should lead committees. The next meeting is planned for Jan. 27.

Tasha Kama is the new chair of the Maui County Council. Members were unable to decide who should head the various council committees. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Usually, council members get all of that work done in the first meeting and by the end of January are meeting in committees and getting to work, according to a review of meeting agendas since 2015. The committees are the avenue that council members use to discuss new laws and explore ways to solve Maui’s most pressing problems.

Last fall, Fodor’s Travel, a tourism publication, named Maui as one of 10 destinations on its 2023 list of places that tourists should reconsider visiting because the island ranked among destinations “immediately and dramatically impacted by water crises.”

Besides grappling with water shortages and dire droughts, Maui’s housing costs have also soared in recent years. The typical price of a home now stands at more than $1 million, according to real estate data. At the same time, the community’s per capita income hovers at just $38,000.

“We have to be leaders for the county and work together and compromise,” Paltin said in an interview. “It may be naive or pollyanna of me to think that we can work together, but what else are we going to do?”

It’s become even harder in recent years to afford a home on Maui, which has grappled with a housing crisis for decades. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The sure thing, Paltin said, is that the situation that the council members are in is temporary, but whether that means weeks or months is uncertain.

“I’m hopeful that the court case will be resolved quickly so that Maui County Council can get to work and start doing the work that the people who elected us expect,” said Cook, the newly elected member from South Maui.

Others are trying to find ways to temporarily bring on a ninth member. Maui County’s charter, the document that serves as the local government’s constitution, says the council can appoint someone to serve as a council member if there’s a vacancy.

Sugimura said the current situation is unusual because the election results were never certified. She’s looking into what it might take to appoint a temporary member, which in her view is the best solution to make sure the council can get work done.

Maui’s council members, she said, were elected by voters because of their unique perspectives.

“Our decisions are based upon that,” Sugimura said. “We don’t necessarily flip-flop.”

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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