Last weekend, Alan Arakawa was sworn in as the seventh Mayor of Maui County — eight years after he became Maui’s fifth Mayor, and four years after he watched Charmaine Tavares take his job.
A few days before the ceremony, we sat down with Arakawa in his Wailuku transition office — a small, cluttered room filled with papers, filing cabinets and a few staffers pecking at iPads — to discuss his top priorities, his political appointees and his road map for term number two.
What’s the first concrete thing you’d like to accomplish?
One of the first things that I’m going to do is issue a directive that all County employees will behave in a professional manner, and that any unprofessional behavior will be dealt with through disciplinary action. We’ve had a lot of complaints about County employees not being public-oriented and not working as public servants. This is an attitude that I won’t tolerate, and I don’t believe the public should either. We’re here to serve the public — we’re not here to make demands or threaten or pretend that we’re better than anybody else.
You said “professional manner.” How is that defined?
The County already has a policy of behavior. [It] entails normal politeness and to be able to recognize that they have to deal with the public. The public are after all the business that we’re in. So we’re going to serve our clientele in a way that would befit any business. We have to be courteous. We have to receive calls and return calls. We process papers. We help people get their paperwork done. We don’t demand and we don’t force people to do things because they’re afraid of us. That’s the attitude we’re going to change.
What’s the punishment if people don’t comply?
There’s already a system that’s established within the union agreements. If someone is acting in a way that is non-professional, we’ll have a consultation meeting and explain what it is they’re doing incorrectly, with their union representative present. We’ll do this in a written format as well as an interview format, and we’ll ask them to take corrective action. If they take corrective action, fine. If they don’t — if they repeat the improper behavior — then we’ll take further disciplinary action. There’s progressive disciplinary action that’s spelled out in the union contracts; we’ll do this according to the system that’s already in place.
What’s one mistake you believe Mayor Tavares made that you can rectify quickly?
One is the attitudes of County employees. But there are a number of things we’re looking at. We want to create affordable housing. The community has been crying for affordable housing for some time now. And even though the ability has been there — many of the developers have wanted to produce affordable housing — a lot of that has been stymied. We’re going to work with some of those developers.
We also want to work with agencies that want to take foreclosed properties, rehabilitate them and put them back into service. We have to minimize the number of foreclosures and vacant properties that are left unattended; we don’t want to create the broken-window syndrome that many other communities are facing.
In order for us to have a viable economy, we’re going to have to start being very pro-business, working with businesses and people who want to help themselves. We’re going to be encouraging people to start businesses, expand businesses and hire more people. We’re going to do away with the process of telling people we’d rather have them on welfare than helping themselves. That doesn’t make any sense.
Give a concrete example of how you’d encourage a business to expand.
For one thing, we’re going to look into changing the permitting process. Let’s say a building has six offices, and somebody wants to come in and establish a new business in one of those spaces. They’re now required to fix the entire building and to make improvements to the entire property. We’re going to try to change the process so that they only need to fix what needs to be fixed, minimizing the cost of a new start-up. If someone is trying to invest $30,000 to start a business and they’re given a bill for $200,000 to fix a fire hydrant and water lines, they’re not going to start that business.
The role of government is not to create rules that are unrealistic and hurtful; the role of government is to find ways to help people survive in a very difficult environment.
Speaking of the role of government: during the campaign you criticized the size of the Mayor’s staff. What are some specific cuts you plan to make?
We’re taking about a 15 percent reduction in employee pay in the Mayor’s office, and we’re not filling all the positions. It’s not that we couldn’t use them, but we realize these are tough economic times. And as long as we’re asking the community to tighten its belt, the County should do the same thing. We’re looking to do that in all the departments, to streamline them so that the work that one department is doing isn’t being duplicated by every other department.
In departments like fire, police and parks, we have people who are trying to create buildings or facilities. The fire department is having firefighters design the fire house in Kaunakakai, for instance, and manage the project. So we have fire fighters who are not trained project managers out there trying to supervise the contractor. Does that make sense? Taking people who aren’t trained to oversee a major project?
So it’s a matter of misused resources then?
It’s a matter of putting the right resources in the right places to accomplish what we need to accomplish. We were on Molokai recently. We have a new community center at Maunaloa. From what I’ve been told and from what I saw myself, much of the construction is substandard. The floor of the center is raw concrete, and somebody seems to have poured non-skid on as a cover. Can you imagine dancing on a sand-based non-skid floor? Can you imagine how difficult it’s going to be for seniors with walkers? It’s obvious that whoever did the project management didn’t have the experience to know that these kind of things aren’t done.
I could go into any number of examples. But honestly I don’t want to go into too much detail, because I’m going to have the parks department review these things and find out who was responsible. These are ways that County funds are being misspent, and we have to go back and make corrections.
Talk about the layout of the ninth floor. We know from your infamous radio remarks you don’t buy the security explanation given by your predecessor. Do you plan to change things?
First of all, the way we do security in the [County] building isn’t really going to protect anybody. If you want to have true security, it costs a lot more than what we’re willing to put out, or should put out. I want to open things up because I believe the County of Maui deserves an open government. I’m going to be walking around Longs Drugs and Safeway and everywhere else, going to a lot of events. If I’m going to go all those places without [security], I don’t see why I need it at the County building. The public should be able to come in and talk to us.
So does that mean another remodel?
Well, we’re going to open the door for one thing. Beyond that, I’m told I have to check the permitting process, but I don’t like the office structure. I think it’s cold and unfriendly. Anyone coming to visit the Mayor now, there’s no reception area, nowhere to sit and get a cup of coffee. That sends the wrong message. You’re paying us, and we need to be open to listening to you. We’re not going to be hiding.
You tapped two termed-out Councilmembers–Jo Anne Johnson and Mike Molina–to serve in your administration. What do you expect them to bring to the table?
The public returned Councilmembers Molina and Johnson to office five times, so obviously they have the support of the community. They have a lot of talent and a lot of experience. With Mike Molina, I hope we can have a good relationship with the County Council. I want him to explain to us how and why the Council passed certain laws, and how we can improve the systems we have. We also have to deal with boards and commissions. Their results end up at the Council for review. Having Mike help us find people for boards and commissions, I think, will be very beneficial.
Councilmember Johnson is very community-oriented; she’s very bright and capable. I have her as transportation director because I believe she has the vision to look long-term at the kind of things we need to accomplish. Corridors for a train system, for example. She’ll have engineers and experts helping with the technical side of course, but being able to go out in the community and work with the state and understand the legislative process is very important.
One of our contributors, Rob Parsons, is going to be part of your administration for the second time, as environmental coordinator. Talk about the role you want him to play.
Everybody thinks of Rob as 100 percent environmental, Mr. Environment. And while he does have that mantle and that’s an area he’ll be able to help us with, he was also very helpful to our [first] administration being a liaison to the state. Rob attended many of the Department of Transportation meetings, DLNR meetings–he was our go-between whenever the state was planning something and the Mayor’s office needed a representative. The ability to get the County and the state working together on projects — like the bathrooms in Lahaina, in the harbor area — is invaluable. We were able to cut through the red tape to save literally tens of millions of dollars of federal money and create the harbor improvements in Manele and Kaunakakai, some of the things that are happening in Maalaea right now, the improvements to the sewer system. Rob was instrumental in putting those packages together, and those are things I’m looking at Rob to do. When you’re walking through a community and you’re looking for ways to improve it, you have very different eyes than when you’re walking through it just to get from one place to another.
You’ve made water one of your central issues. What’s the plan for the next four years?
Very simply we want to develop the water resources we need so that we never have a deficiency in water supply. It’ll take us a little bit to catch up, but once we do we’ll stay ahead of the curve. We’re already having discussions with A&B about sharing the use of their irrigation systems as transportation systems for water. We do have to work with the state water commission as well, but at least we’ll have a real good idea as to where we’re going and what we need to accomplish.
To spend a whole lot of time just taking water out of the Iao aquifer area — Na Wai Eha — makes almost no sense in the long term. All we’re doing currently is temporary patches, the movement of wells and trying to get broader draw bases — half a million gallons here or half a million gallons there. It’s still threatening the water resource. If Lahaina’s system were to fail today, how would we supplement? We don’t have a backup. We can’t be crossing our fingers and hoping on a wing and a prayer. We have to figure out ways to connect all the systems and balance our water use, to be sure there’s a redundancy to protect the community.
Is that something you could accomplish in four years? Is this an issue voters should judge you on?
It’s not going to happen in four years. The start of it will happen within a year or two, but these are long-term plans. We don’t have the money to just go in and make all these improvements right away, but we do have the will to start laying out the programs and getting things going. It will take time, but we need to start someplace.
What do you think about the makeup of the new Council? Are you optimistic you’ll be able to work with them?
I’m optimistic I’ll be able to work with the Council. Having former Councilmembers on our staff will allow us to have a lot better communication. I want everybody to know that any breakdown in communication is not going to be because my administration is trying to estrange itself. We’re going to go out of our way to try and work with the Council, and you will note that at every meeting, every time they ask us for something we’ll be cooperative. This has to be a cooperative relationship; it’s not about political posturing.
It sounds like you’re anticipating problems. Do you have any specific reason to be concerned?
No. The last time we were in office, we had problems because it wasn’t always a two-way street. And I’m pointing out that we’re going to do everything in our power to make it a two-way street. I’m not anticipating a problem, [but] if there is a problem it’s not going to be our fault.
We hear regularly from people who’ve given up on County government, who believe it’s broken. What would you say to them?
Well, let me point out some harsh realities. If County government didn’t exist, most of these people would not have water or sewers, their roads would not be repaired, there would be no police or fire protection. All of these things they’ve given up on, they depend on them, too. And they’ll be the first to scream they want a fire engine when their house is burning down.
Those are essential services. What about some of the less-essential bureaucracy?
It goes hand-in-hand. Whenever you have a government system you’re dealing with a lot of areas, balancing community needs and community wants. You’re always going to have conflicts. The person who wants the perfect government for himself is being very selfish, saying, ‘I don’t care what anybody else needs.’ That doesn’t work in the real world.
The reality is we have limitations in resources [and] capabilities. We can’t snap our fingers and have the best engineers, the best technicians, the best computer geniuses at fingertip. People within our community, the skills they have, are the best we have and we have to utilize them as best we can. There will be mistakes, there will be delays. But if people don’t like the way government is operating, they can volunteer for boards and commissions and be in a position to make decisions. Everything from street lighting or street naming commissions to the planning commission, police commission, the water board. People need to stand up and be part of a solution rather than just griping.