Maui County’s new mayor and council officially took office Monday before a packed audience of local residents and state dignitaries who showed up for New Year’s Day ceremonies.
More than a thousand Maui County residents and government leaders from across Hawaii crowded into the Maui Arts & Cultural Center Monday night, where Mayor Richard Bissen delivered his first address as the county’s top leader. The retired judge vowed to bridge divisions in the community and uphold his campaign promises to provide housing for local families, improve the island’s water supply, protect the environment and lead an administration focused on “good governance”.
“We are ready to get to work while being mindful of the needs of our diverse communities,” Bissen told the crowd.
Earlier this 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 ceremony. Eight council members took the oath of office, while the ninth member — former Council Chairwoman Alice Lee of Wailuku, Waihee and Waikapu Districts — was barred 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 were re-elected to two-year terms are Gabe Johnson of Lanai; Tasha Kama from Kahului; Tamara Paltin of West Maui; Molokai’s Keani Rawlins-Fernandez; Shane Sinenci from East Maui; and Upcountry’s Yuki Lei Sugimura. The two newcomers are Tom Cook, who won the South Maui seat, and Nohe U’u-Hodgins, who won the Makawao-Haiku-Paia district.
The eight council members unanimously elected Kama, the Kahului representative, to chair the council. During the campaign, Kama was supported by a variety of groups from across the community’s political spectrum, from the progressive Maui Ohana Candidates Group to the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association PAC.
“Councilor Kama has received broad support from all of our community members, and we serve them here,” said Molokai’s Rawlins-Fernandez.
Although council members control the purse strings and make county laws, it is the mayor—and the county government as a whole—that initiates new programs and guides local government on Maui, Molokai and Lanai on a day-to-day basis.
During his first address as mayor, Bissen vowed to focus his administration on “wise and responsible spending” while ushering in a new focus on innovation. He told the crowd that his government will set up a new “Office for Innovation” that will focus on tackling climate change issues, moving the community towards food sovereignty and developing renewable energy sources.
Bissen, elected by an overwhelming 60% of the vote over incumbent Michael Victorino, vowed to break the polarization that has plagued the government and commit to forging partnerships to bring together the diverse communities of Maui, Molokai and Lanai to serve. He said his view of the world was shaped by his upbringing as he was raised by Hawaiian parents. As mayor, he told the crowd, he will build on the belief that the collective community is more important than the individual.
“Ancient knowledge and practice have always been here. We just weren’t listening,” Bissen told the crowd. “We can learn so much from our kupuna and the people with local knowledge.”
The Missing Council Member
County election officials have not issued an election certificate 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 that the county election official mishandled approximately 800 ballots.
Maui County has opposed the lawsuit, arguing that the concerns raised in the lawsuit are not valid grounds for anyone to contest election results.
But even if the Hawaii Supreme Court rules in favor of the district, it could still be months before the Wailuku Council seat is resolved. Hawaii state law states that election results cannot be certified until election disputes have been resolved and the appeal period has expired.
Because the lawsuit raises concerns about federal election laws, voters have 90 days to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, according to their attorney. What will happen in the meantime is unclear. Maui County’s charter, the document that serves as the local government’s constitution, states that the council may appoint someone to serve as a temporary councillor. If the council does not do so within 30 days, the mayor may appoint someone to fill the vacancy.
In an interview, Lee said the lawsuit had “no merit.”
“We believe this is a very frivolous case,” she said. “We expect a positive verdict.”
But in the meantime, she said, she hopes the situation will be resolved as soon as possible.
“It’s going to be difficult 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.