The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: Maui County Council Chair Alice Lee - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair, John Hill and Richard Wiens.

She discusses economic concerns following the August wildfires, the steep challenges in rebuilding, and why it’s important for public officials to speak directly and frequently with the media.

Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters spoke on Wednesday with Alice Lee, the chair of the Maui County Council, which includes Lanai and Molokai. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Lee began explaining what she sees as the role of the County Council in response to the August wildfires.

The role of the Maui County Council is really to oversee the budget by charter. That’s where we receive our authority to oversee the budget and approve the budget. And also we make land use decisions. We will be very active as we start to deal with all the losses and trying to find ways to generate revenues to not lose as much as we could, because we expect to lose (a lot) with regard to real property taxes, TAT (transient accommodation taxes), GET (general excise tax) surcharge money. Our general economy, of course, is in bad shape. We have a high unemployment rate. And to top it all, we have over 47 lawsuits against the county. So we’re looking at a very bleak economic situation, which the council will have to resolve.

How are the tourism numbers looking right now? It seemed like there was about $13 million a day being lost. Do you have a more up to date picture on the county’s economic losses?

No, I don’t. We also follow UHERO as well, and they’re coming up with their numbers any day now. So we are following the numbers that they produced for September. All of those numbers are very helpful to guide us as we navigate through this economic crisis. We are very concerned with the lack of visitors, in particular in Kaanapali. But the occupancy in the rest of Maui County is really not that bad. It started at about 50%. It’s moving up to 60%. And we expect those numbers to end strong at the end of the year. We expect the numbers in West Maui to move a lot slower because we are discouraging people from visiting the burn zones. But they still can go to Kaanapali and they can still go to Kapalua. But most people, for the time being, are avoiding those places.

You’re referring to hotel room occupancy numbers, is that correct?

Yes. Those occupancy numbers, in Kaanapali it’s like 10, 15%, and I’m not counting the displaced residents. I’m talking about visitors. It’s about 10 or 15%.

Is the state, through the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the county’s tourism arm, doing enough to get the message out that, “Hey, Lahaina is off limits, but the rest of Maui is open and we could use your business.” Is that message getting out there?

The Civil Beat Editorial Board met via zoom with Maui County Council Chair Alice Lee on Wednesday. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

I think it is. But, you know, even the visitor industry folks are trying to respect the wishes of the residents and be cautious and compassionate, because it’s going to take years for the recovery to actually be done. We’ve learned a lot from the lessons of Paradise, California, and Sonoma, California. And so we have a lot of good information to guide us going forward and to know what to expect.

The people in West Maui actually do not realize how long their journey is going to be because of all the issues that beset us. Not only do we have debris removal, then we have to deal with air quality and we have to deal with the toxins in the ground and moving on to the ocean. All of those things take time to mitigate, and possibly years.

So it’s not a matter of people just removing debris and starting to build tomorrow. It’s not that simple, because, in addition to all of that, we need new infrastructure with regard to water and sewer disposal. All those transmission lines are broken, destroyed, for the most part. New infrastructure has to be built, and that takes years.

In terms of the revenue picture, I believe you have a $31 million hole in your budget. What steps are you taking now if that tax revenue doesn’t return as quickly and as heavily as is hoped? You’re probably going to have to look at cutting services and other programs.

Well, that’s not going to be my recommendation. My recommendation is not to touch operations. Our employees are stretched as it is. They’re doing double duty. There’s no time to be cutting operations. In fact, we need to be hiring people. What we can do is defer projects, (capital improvement) projects. Our budget is about a billion dollars and CIP runs about $200 million. So some of those projects do not have to go forward right now. They can be deferred and the monies that were allocated to those projects can be used to address some of the shortages that we are incurring.

Tell me a little bit about Bill 86. This is the one on the removal of the fire debris from properties that were destroyed. How is that bill different and how does that play in with the other removal activities that are going on, the EPA and so forth?

Bill 86 was proposed by the administration I think primarily to expedite the debris removal process. But I don’t think the administration realized that you should not combine Upcountry with West Maui. And when we received that bill, we decided to bifurcate it so that Lahaina could be delayed and Upcountry can move forward. Upcountry only has about 20 homes that were destroyed, and they’re so far ahead. They’ve been working with FEMA and the other agencies for some time now, whereas people in Lahaina are only now going back to their properties zone by zone. Some haven’t even gone back yet. So it’s not fair to deal with those two different geographical areas the same way.

We’re looking at a very bleak economic situation.

So Upcountry will have that opportunity to go forward now and Lahaina will have more time to make a decision. But the important thing to remember is they have a deadline. They all have deadlines for every federal program. And people need to understand that if they choose to have FEMA remove the debris, it’ll be at no cost to them. And the average is about $70,000. If you decide to do it yourself, then you take on the responsibility of paying for it yourself, minus perhaps insurance coverage. But I would think most people would choose the option to go with FEMA , but it’s really up to them.

Bill 86 still needs to go through another vote or two, is that correct?

It will have one more reading. There seems to be unanimous support for passing it the way it is, bifurcating it.

You mentioned Lahaina and the concerns about the toxins in the air and the ground and water. How confident are you with this Soiltac that’s being applied to Lahaina? There is controversy about how effective that will be, whether that’s harmful to humans and others. How confident are you that that program to keep that soil contained is going to work?

It’s hard to say right now. I think there are a lot of questions. My tendency is to support EPA. However, we have other people who challenge their recommendation. So until we get more definitive information, it’s going to be hard for the people to decide what they want.

Lee said it is important for public officials to regularly update the media in times of crisis. (Screenshot/Civil Beat/2023)

What is the biggest thing that worries you about this whole situation that you’re in?

My worry and my concern and my priority is making sure that the county remains solvent, because we’re dealing with so many uncertainties about the economy and about loss of revenues. But we’re not sure — we don’t have a handle on that yet until we can figure out exactly what the tab is going to be as a result of this disaster.

Luckily for us, although we’re hemorrhaging with regard to the visitor industry and revenues, but luckily for us, what’s going to offset that a little here is the fact that we’ll have a lot of construction money and construction work as a result of the debris removal and the infrastructure development. And FEMA is helping us. Yesterday, (Bob) Fenton (a regional administrator for FEMA), who’s been like our guardian angel, told us that they are going to help us pay for some of the new infrastructure.

Because we need water and sewer treatment. Those two are very critical for housing. He’s not sure that FEMA can also help with the highway construction. But if not them, perhaps U.S. DOT. So they seem to be all in for us and I’m so grateful.

Have you been meeting with budget people to kind of look to the future to say, “Well, what’s the worst case scenario that we could face?” Would it be bankruptcy of the county or is it too soon to think about that?

I would see that as a worst case scenario. Actually, I do not believe we are allowed to file for bankruptcy. We can become insolvent. But as we go through the process and as we find out exactly what the extent of our liability is going to be with regard to the lawsuits, we’ll have a better understanding as far as liabilities, as far as how much we have to pay for our share of the infrastructure improvements.

How do we expedite the process to get people in more permanent homes? I mean, right now they’re fine in hotels. Mr. Fenton said that they’ll help for at least a year, maybe longer. So that’s our timeline. We need to hurry up and get some housing going so that we can move the displaced folks into permanent housing. All of those challenges are before us.

You mentioned that the people of West Maui don’t know or don’t realize what a long, long road they have ahead of them. Do you think the mayor or the county or whoever has just not done a great job of telling people, “Hey, this is not going to be like six months from now you’re going to be back building your new home on your same lot”?

Yes. And that’s unfortunate. Some people are not ready to have this conversation, No. 1. And No. 2, it’s a delicate balancing act that we have to perform every day, because on the one hand, there is a large group of people, a large segment of the population, who do not want to deal with this right now. Then there’s another segment that wants to deal with it. So we have to be very cautious not to upset people as they go through this very difficult time.

We don’t know all the answers yet, so there’s no point in adding to people’s anxieties. But the truth of the matter is there is no way that they can return to their properties and turn the tap on because nothing is going to come out. Everything has to be repaired or rebuilt as far as water is concerned. And that is something that takes a very long time to do.

And then some people have existing non-conforming properties, which means they may be subject to new county codes. So to think that you can just go back and rebuild is not all that easy. I’m glad that the mayor created this new office called Maui Recovers and it’s headed by Josiah Nishida. And he is a credible individual, very experienced, and he can help guide a lot of these folks and answer a lot of their questions.

We have to be very cautious not to upset people as they go through this very difficult time.

But again, just remember that many of them haven’t seen their properties yet. And for those who have gone back, they’re only at the stage where they’re viewing or looking through the rubble and everything, trying to find possessions that they want to keep. And then the next step is their insurance person and dealing with all of the complexities of the fire and what was destroyed — what’s covered, what’s not covered, etc. That’s what they’re going through. So I don’t think they’re at the stage where they’re thinking about house plans or anything like that.

When is that time for you as as an elected official, a leader of the county, to give them kind of the bad news?

Well, I don’t want to characterize it as bad news, but to be candid with them so that they can make plans based on facts now. We ourselves can’t be all that definitive because we follow the guidance of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers. If they say that the air quality is not acceptable or they say that there are toxins that have permeated the ground, then that’s far beyond what we can control. So that has to come first.

And I’m hoping that people realize that the federal government is really in control at this point. And even though (some people) now might be feeling eager to go back when last week they weren’t, but let’s say they are this week, there are steps that need to be taken before we get to that. And it’s for their own health and safety. We don’t want to put them back into a situation where they can get sick or their children can get sick.

Truth Excavation sprayed a soil stabilizer on burned ash and debris inside of a burned-out house Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Lahaina. Known by its brand name “Soiltac,” once dry, potential hazardous material from burned debris and ash will remain on the ground and not become airborne particles. It is difficult to visually discern what has been sprayed. But walking on the dried application of soil stabilizer is noticeably softer. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A soil stabilizer sprayed on ash and debris inside of a burned-out house in Lahaina. Chair Lee said she is aware of concerns about environmental impact but said she generally has faith in the EPA. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In terms of zoning of Lahaina, can the county rezone the whole place because there’s a different vision of what should happen there? And how would that process work?

That is possible to create, let’s say, a new development zone or a project district of some kind. I think on Oahu Kakaako has its own type of standards, building standards, etc. That could possibly happen in Lahaina, but that would take years, and I mean years for it to happen because, first of all, portions of the town are in what is called the SMA area — shoreline management area. So that comes under a lot of different sets of rules. Then, it’s a historic district. So then you have those rules. Then you may have, like I mentioned earlier, the existing non-conforming lot sizes and so forth. So all of that could be exempted or adjustments could be made to that if Lahaina town was created as its own entity, its own land use entity. But to get consensus on what that vision would look like might take a while.

And would there be a question of regulatory taking, too, if some landowners (saw) lower possible use of their land? Would you have to compensate land owners who, under current zoning, could do something but if under the new zoning, they couldn’t do as much?

I’m not sure about that. I know that there was talk about no one can sell his or her property to someone that doesn’t live in Lahaina. That might have legal implications. Now, as far as somebody selling the property for what they think it’s worth but it’s no longer worth that amount, well, that would be beyond our purview.

Just to clarify, what I’m thinking about is downzoning. If you downzoned some of the parcels in Lahaina, would the owners of those parcels be able to say, “Hey, you devalued my land and you have to compensate me.”

I don’t think so, because whatever with those changes over the years, with the code, we always give notice to the public. Nothing is done secretly. And it happens over a long period of time. So many people know that, especially if their house was built back in the 1940s and 1950s, they’ll know that the code has changed since then for public health and safety reasons. I wouldn’t call that downzoning because we have allowed for that property to continue. It’s something grandfathered in. Normally something is grandfathered until, if it burns down, then you have to then build it up to code. And that’s the normal process.

Of course we could exempt Lahaina if we wanted to. That’s also possible. But it’s not easy because you’re not going to get total agreement on what the status of the town should be. Because after all, it is a historic district. And I don’t think the county council has the authority to change that status.

I’m curious what you think about the mayor’s consensus building, his leadership, his communication? What kind of confidence do you have in the mayor at this point and in handling all this?

Well, I agree with him on some things and then we parted company on others. As I mentioned earlier, I disagree with him on his proposal to cut operations. I believe that it’s great to find temporary living quarters, but somebody has to laser focus on building new long-term houses. I mean, that is undeniable. He should have his departments figuring out every which way to expedite the process for long-term housing, because that’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s going to take a year or two or three, but somebody’s got to be doing that. You can’t be thinking, “Okay, we’re going to take the people out of the hotels and put them in mobile homes.” And the mobile homes is a good idea for short term, but somebody has to be working on the long term.

Would you say that you are generally satisfied with how Maui County has dealt with the news media since the fires?

I don’t know. You’re the best judge of that, I’d say. I try to be available as possible, and I think the council as a whole has been trying to be available. I can’t speak for the mayor’s administration.

Well, some things have never been clearly explained. And this goes right through the mayor’s appearance on (Hawaii News Now’s) “Spotlight” the other day, such as who was in charge at the county’s emergency operation center on the afternoon of the fire. Does that concern you?

Well, it does. It does, because we have to pay the tab with regard to lawsuits. So it does concern, yes. But I’ll tell you honestly, I didn’t learn of the timeline until I read it in the Maui News.

I understand that this is going to be the subject of long-term investigations. But considering the scale of this disaster, doesn’t it seem like people should maybe get a little bit more information on what was going on that day in terms of the emergency response than what they’ve gotten so far?

I think people are deserving and public is deserving of all the information. I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m in government and I can understand why you have to be extra cautious about what you say, especially if there are lawsuits pending. But if I were a member of the public, I feel I have a right to know at least the basics. I have a right to know because it’s my taxpayer dollar that is going to end up paying for all of it.

It does seem like the mayor’s office has kind of pulled back — not entirely, but somewhat — from actual press briefings and relying more on issuing written statements, press releases and prerecorded video statements. Is that a good trend?

That’s not something we would do on the council. As a matter of fact, as you know, Sept. 27 — and the only reason why it took that long, Sept. 27 — is because we couldn’t find a venue to hold a meeting. We weren’t allowed to use the Lahaina Civic Center, and that was the only county public venue that would have been available to us. So we had to rent the Westin’s ballroom, and we had over 1,200 people show up.

I think people are deserving and public is deserving of all the information.

And the reason why we did — and I knew we’re going to get a lot of angry people saying unkind things to us — but I wanted that to happen because I knew they had all these pent-up feelings and they wanted to get it out and they were tired of being talked to. They wanted to say something to us, to government. And so that’s the reason why we were there from 9 in the morning until 9:45 at night. And I promised them that we would have more meetings even though we can’t go back to West Maui. We’ll try. We’ll try and have as many as possible so people can get it out, whatever they have to say. That’s the way we do business. But I can’t speak for the mayor.

Are you also having problems getting information out of the administration.


Maybe you have some thoughts on that for us as as writers, as the press, to try and convince them they need to be more forthcoming.

I don’t know if it’s a question of style or if it’s a question of inexperience. I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I’ve been in this business way longer than most people, and we’ve always operated this way. The best way is to be open and then take your shots, because that way people can understand at least your position even if they don’t like it. Then they understand they have an opportunity to make a judgment on whether they feel you’re right or wrong. All of our meetings are open, actually, not only by design, but we are required by Sunshine Law to make sure that our meetings are public and open. But it was our decision to go out and meet the public and let them go after us. And we had some some pretty unruly people at the meeting and they’ll just zing you if they feel like it. But we always have to remind ourselves the vast majority are considerate, are courteous, and that’s who we serve. Those are the ones that we want to hear from. And we will try our darnedest to help them.

Maui County Council Chair Alice Lee has been meeting with the public and making media appearances to answer questions about the Maui fires. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

We’re starting from the assumption that even though the fires were on Maui and Maui is obviously at the center of what’s happening, it really affects the whole state. But I just don’t get the sense that the mayor’s office looks at it that way. I think they look at it as like, “This is Maui. What happens on Maui stays on Maui. And we don’t have to tell anybody anything unless we want to.” And I just think that’s really shortsighted and also not helpful to the whole state. I just don’t know how to get around that, other than we just keep doing stories that point out how the shortcomings in their media and their communications. But if you had any thoughts on that, I’m happy to hear them.

I think that, again, the mayor hasn’t had much experience in this area. Early on, right after the fire, we were getting calls from ABC, CBS, BBC, everybody, New Zealand, Turkey. I’m not kidding you. Yeah, I was interviewed and I took them all. And I didn’t have that much information because none was given to me that much. But whatever I had to say, I did feel I needed to be a face on a national level, for a couple of reasons. One, to raise awareness of where we were. And two, to raise money. Because the needs of the people were evolving and they no longer needed water bottles and paper towels. And they needed money for a variety of things.

I went on national television knowing I was going to get slammed because all they wanted to hear was, “Why didn’t the sirens go on?” I had nothing to do with that, right? And they hammered that, hammered that, hammered. And I would answer, “Well, there’s an investigation going on about that and we’re not dismissing it” and things like that. And I go right into, “But the rest of Maui is open. And we do need monetary donations.” If I could get those two lines in, I was happy. I didn’t care what kind of criticism I took because I was on national television, which people pay, millions of dollars to be on television. And I got that for free and I got the word out for my county.

But then I also took some slings and arrows because they wanted answers. And I honestly didn’t have any, except for how people were doing now and what we needed. But as far as what caused the fire and why weren’t the sirens on? Why this and why that? I am not part of the administration or the emergency response team. So I was the last person to be asked to be answering those questions. But I tried to. And so my answer to you is that because I had more experience, I took the opportunity and used it to help Maui. That’s what I did. But if you don’t have that experience, maybe you don’t know how to do that.

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

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About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair, John Hill and Richard Wiens.

Latest Comments (0)

The heavy load of responsibility felt by the Maui County Council is huge. The focus and high priority on tourism and getting it back in working order is a significant mistake. All should be focused on building a new and sustainable community that leaves behind the economic disparities of the immediate past. Don't "rebuild", build anew a sustainable community, including ALL of the necessary infrastructure. It could then support a worthwhile tourism industry. But if the foundational piece (a sustainable community) is overlooked or given short shrift, this type of disaster will all happen again. We need to learn from what happened, no doubt, and then make different choices than before, about building anew. I understand that people want widely encompassing and immediate results. But immediate results won't get us anywhere near something sustainable and able to withstand future economic and disaster-related challenges. One approach to provide some immediate results is to begin rebuilding with a thoroughly developed sustainable model in small areas, expanding the model as each of those areas "takes hold" and begins to thrive.

aloha4thekamaaina · 1 month ago

Maui County ignored urgent infrastructure needs for decades and approved residential, commercial, tourism, short term rental, and luxury home development that outpaced those urgent infrastructure needs. These county and state officials love talking about "finding a balance" but their blatant disregard for emergency planning and preparation and maintaining infrastructure are what caused the catastrophic disaster on August 8. Some residents don't understand that it will take years to recover like Lee said in the interview. The rest of us know West Maui will never recover because the state and county haven't learned any lessons from their gross negligence. And they're the people responsible for getting us out of this mess. I find it hard to believe any of them are capable of effectively executing their job duties while they meet with their lawyers and deny legal requests for information.

ALC20 · 1 month ago

"Are you also having problems getting information out of the administration? Yes" . Chair Alice LeeGreat interview. I wish it had included information regarding the emergency proclamation by Mayor to suspend the Charter, leaving the Council with no power or authority. Despite this action, the Council took care of business with little or no information from the Administration.Councilmembers Paltin and Sugimura immediately began social media communications with the people of their Districts regarding practical information. Those communications continue today. They sought information to inform constituents regarding water warnings and fire status with little response from the County.Maui folks continued to be angry, frustrated and deeply sad with no forum to complain or get answers. The Mayor went to videotape while the Council went to the public forum. A tough call by Council Chair Lee but so important to the public. Where was Bissen? MIA.Based on this interview, it is good to know that the Council’s commitment to serve the public openly and honestly is alive and well. Thanks for your leadership, Chair Lee and to the Council for a doing your job in real time!

Mauitutu · 1 month ago

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