Change in the wind

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” –John F. Kennedy

The month of January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, who was associated with doorways and new beginnings. On old Roman coins, Janus is depicted with two faces, symbolizing both the past and the future.

In this week of inauguration fanfare, we pause to recall the last time we welcomed a new president with such an air of optimism and hope—nearly 50 years ago when we ushered in John F. Kennedy, his debutante wife Jackie, and their two children. JFK’s leadership was marked by great triumphs, establishing the Peace Corps and propelling the space program forward, and monumental challenges, including the chill of the Cold War and the turbulent fight for long-overdue civil rights for African Americans.

Fast-forward 48 years to the fanfare surrounding another charismatic president-elect and his attractive family: Hawaii-born Barack Obama, his wife Michelle and their daughters Sasha and Malia. Faced with Herculean tasks—repairing a fractured national economy, stopping the bleeding from previous foreign policy blunders, mending America’s fractured alliances—Obama may need godlike qualities to live up to the lofty expectations.

Even while big Kona winds swept through the islands last week, it was apparent local politicians are far less likely to inspire hope or to implement a vision for positive change. Critics may be quick to label island leaders as “two-faced,” but the reference bears little resemblance to that of a Roman god’s omniscient wisdom.

Recent criticism of Councilmember Wayne Nishiki’s late filing of his financial disclosure report—and calls for his resignation or impeachment for covering up a $100,000 loan from developer Everett Dowling two years earlier—has sometimes bordered on character assassination. Nishiki’s supporters have been guilty of their own hyperbole, claiming he has no conflict of interest. 

It’s fairly clear that Nishiki, like other local politicians, is neither saint nor sinner, but falls squarely in between the two. Maui News City Editor Ed Tanji brought some reason to the debate when he recently declared, “For all the anguish expressed to the Maui County Board of Ethics over Council Member Wayne Nishiki’s failure to file a timely financial disclosure form, it’s not all that clear that Nishiki violated any punishable rule.”

There has been a dearth of discussion regarding campaign contributions made by Dowling to each of the five Councilmembers who recently voted “yes” for rezoning Makena Resort lands to allow more homes and condos for the ultra-rich. And what Maui’s voters may not realize is that while other elected officials are busy selling off the family farm or fiddling while Rome burns, Nishiki is already quietly doing what he does best—protecting the public’s interest in the political process.

At the council’s organizational meeting on January 2, Nishiki helped turn back a proposed change in council rules that would have limited the number of minutes allowed for citizens to testify in person. He also introduced an amendment to ensure that appointment of a liaison to the state legislature be contracted by a council resolution, not merely at the council chair’s discretion.

Each of the past two years, former Chair Riki Hokama, acting as chief procurement officer, hand-picked former colleague Dain Kane to do the council’s bidding on Oahu. In 2008, Kane’s contract paid him $22,750 for work conducted from January 15-May 15.

But do taxpayers, who ultimately paid the tab, have any idea of Kane’s or the council’s objectives at the legislature, or any tangible results that were achieved? Kane also had an apparent conflict of interest: even as he represented the council, he was the Maui representative for BlueEarth Biofuels, which had sought $59 million in special revenue bond financing from the legislature.

Whether or not some feel his reputation is indelibly sullied, Nishiki’s amendment, which passed unanimously, will require that new Chair Danny Mateo abide by his stated goals of “openness” and “transparency” in the selection of a legislative liaison for the 2009 session. Let’s hope that all our elected officials, including Wayne himself, abide by the spirit of community inclusiveness in the endeavors of our government bureaucracies.

One clear example of failing to include the public in decision-making was found on the first council agenda of the new year. The January 16 meeting was postponed, due to blustery Kona winds and rain. But another sort of dark cloud hung over the agenda.

A communication item to the council read as follows: Director of Finance, transmitting a proposed resolution titled, “Authorizing the sale of structures at Kapuka‘ulua (formally [sic] known as Montana Beach), located in Paia, Maui, Hawaii, subject to Section 3.44.020, Maui County Code.” 

The upshot is that two years after boarding up the beautiful two-story dwelling just Paia-side of Baldwin Beach Park, the Tavares administration, with no community input, has decided the best option is to dispose of it.

Back when I served as environmental coordinator, as an assistant to then-Mayor Alan Arakawa, the idea was floated to use the structure, acquired along with the land under it for $5.8 million through settlement of lawsuits dating back to the Apana administration, as a Maui County Environmental Resource Center. Alas, the proposal quickly became a political football.

Nevertheless, more than 30 people provided testimony to the 2006 Council Budget Committee to preserve the structure, and hundreds more signed petitions. Several weekend kokua work days were organized, with dozens of volunteers cleaning, painting and tidying and landscaping the yard. A U-Haul truckload of furniture was donated from the old Kapalua Bay Hotel, making the empty building even more inviting.

Some community members and councilmembers were adamant that nothing should have ever been built at that site, arguing it’s susceptible to erosion and thus the building should be torn down. I once asked a general contractor friend if it would be physically possible to move the structure, which is really three separate buildings perched on huge, tsunami-proof concrete pylons. He replied, “Well, yes, but you’d have to be crazy to want to do that.”

A contract to dismantle the home would likely fetch only pennies to the dollar compared to its real value and cost of construction. The county property would remain off-limits while demolition and special management area permits were acquired, and the public would be left with just the foundation and looming pylons of a once-elegant structure. 

Seasonal shoreline erosion and accretion will continue as long as the boulder revetment, once constructed to protect the plantation’s lime kiln, remains in place. In the last decade alone, dozens of trees have been undermined and lost, and the county bathrooms have teetered at the edge of the ocean’s powerful waves.

But apparently the Tavares administration will move forward with its old way of doing things: D.A.D., or Decide, Announce, Defend. It’s one way for government and business to try to accomplish things, but a poor substitute for actually involving the public in important decisions. The disposition of the county property at Kapukua‘ulua (credit someone for using the traditional Hawaiian place name) deserves a full accounting of options, costs and reasoning.

At the state legislature—which had its lavish meet-and-greet, grin and grinds opening on Wednesday, January 21—things are often so fast and furious during the 100-day session that grassroots input is minimal. Unlike our council, the legislature is not subject to Hawaii Sunshine Law requirements and thus doesn’t have to post meeting agendas a week in advance. 

Surely important bills will be heard to stimulate our local economy, including those seeking to expedite renewable energy projects. Governor Lingle’s Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, signed in October, requires some major public utility modifications. New Public Utility Commission (PUC) dockets have opened on “feed-in tariffs” for renewable energy producers, and for “decoupling” the utility’s profits from more and more electric generation linked to fossil fuel sources.

While a contested case PUC docket on Hawaiian Electric Company’s (HECO) proposed contract with financially troubled Imperium Renewables of Seattle to deliver biodiesel fuel has languished since last October, three new palm oil biodiesel dockets opened on December 31. One of those is Docket 2008-0330, Biofuels in MECO (Maui Electric Company) Diesel Generators.

The state legislature would be wise to realize that the three-man PUC and staff will continue to be bottlenecked and unable to implement timely changes, positive or otherwise, to Hawaii’s future energy plans. Adding staff resources to assist the overworked PUC will go a long way toward helping our state meet its ambitious renewable energy goals.

Whether Hawaii’s leaders are crafting their decision-making on Oahu or here on Maui, we can only hope that their visions for change include a willingness to invite members of the community to take an active role.  For those of us who are civic-minded, that would indeed be change we can believe in. MTW

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