Election Season’s First Mayoral Forum Held in Hilo
It was a mostly civil affair tonight as the top three contenders for Big Island mayor squared off for the first time, but the evening wasn’t without some sniping.
Incumbent Mayor Billy Kenoi, County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong and former mayor Harry Kim met in the first major mayoral debate of the election season.
The event was held before a crowd of several hundred people at the Sangha Hall in Hilo. The forum was hosted by the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce and four other business organizations.
Forum moderator Sherry Bracken posed questions to each of the candidates, who did not directly address their opponents.
Some of the hottest topics discussed included the Big Island’s shrinking budget, its growing garbage problem and renewable energy.
Asked to define their top three priorities, Kenoi said his was job creation, “implementing sound fiscal management” and developing renewable energy sources.
Kim said he could boil his down to one issue, and that is “reducing the gap between the haves and have-nots.”
Yagong said his top priority was to establish a new landfill adjacent to Hilo’s existing one to buy the county time to find a new technical solution to the solid waste problem by establishing a “private-public partnership.”
Both Kenoi and Kim said they were against developing a new landfill in East Hawaii.
Kim, the former longtime head of the county Civil Defense Agency, said that he doubted the Environmental Protection Agency would approve a new landfill there, but did not offer any alternatives.
Kenoi disputed Yagong’s contention that Hilo was a viable site for a new landfill, saying that a variety of government agencies are opposed to such a site because of Hilo’s heavy rain and the threat of bird strikes at the nearby airport.
“If we could have (developed a new landfill), we would have these past four years,” Kenoi said.
All three candidates favored a diversion of the waste stream including increased recycling, with Yagong saying he was pushing for legislation to create greater incentive through a plan similar to the state’s HI-5 redemption program.
Kenoi said a waste-to-energy plant is his preferred solution, noting that Oahu’s H-Power plant burns a large percentage of that island’s solid waste while providing electricity.
On the subject of power, all three candidates professed support for additional geothermal development, with Kim and Yagong stressing that it must be “done right.”
When asked by Bracken whether there was any reason any of the candidates might not finish out a four-year term, all three candidates said they were in it for the long haul.
Yagong noted that he had quit his outside job working for the Foodland chain when he decided to run for mayor, and said he would serve the public as long as it wished.
Kim, 72, who before leaving office because of term limits suffered two heart attacks in his final year at the county’s helm, joked that he had heard rumors that the only reason he was running was because he was dying and he wanted his wife to be more financially secure.
“I’m in good health and I will stay four years,” he said.
Apparently looking to dispel rumors of his own about future runs for office, Kenoi said he had no other political ambitions.
“I commit to the people of this island to serve all four years,” he said.
Kim later elaborated on his reason for running, and on his relationship with Kenoi, who served as a mayoral assistant for most of Kim’s administration.
He said he’s often asked why he’s running again.
“I’m back to give people an additional choice on the ballot,” he said. “There is no conflict between us.”
For his part, Kenoi said he feels the same way he did about Kim as he did when he was 8 years old and Kim was his football coach.
“I love, aloha and respect this man,” Kenoi said.
Asked by Bracken to define their core personal values, Kim said he that he favored a non-confrontational approach.
“Do it by law, do it right and do the best that you can,” he said.
Kenoi said his core fundamental belief is to “take care of our children and our families.”
Yagong said he believed in “taking care of our neighbors, taking care of our family and taking care of our community.”
Kenoi and Yagong also did some sparring on the budget.
Kenoi noted that he had been able to assemble balanced budgets during the past four years which he described as the most troubling economic times since the World War II.
“But we’re still getting things done,” he said.
Yagong said Kenoi did a “wonderful job” on the budget, but was critical of his decision to forgo $34 million in contributions toward future pension obligations.
“We’re stealing from the future,” he said.
Kenoi responded that the Fitch rating service had recently reaffirmed the county’s strong credit rating and noted that his budget was approved by the County Council with only one “no” vote – which happened to be cast by Yagong.
“It’s not enough to criticize the budget we submitted, you have got to come up with an alternative,” he said.
Yagong said he had been told by accountants on the island that delaying the payments was unwise, and maintained that he did come up with a solution, which was his bill passed by the council to use a portion of leftover budget surpluses to partially fund the pension payments.
Kenoi disputed Yagong’s contention that bond underwriters said the bill was financially sound, saying that anything that threatens the county’s credit rating, as he has been told the bill would do, was “very irresponsible.”
The three are among seven mayoral candidates who are vying in the Aug. 11 primary election.
County races are nonpartisan which means any candidate winning more than 50% of the vote is elected outright. If none do, the top two vote-getters will face off in the general election on Nov. 6.