Mayor Kim Talks Mauna Kea, New Way Forward

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Protectors embrace on Mauna Kea Access Road on the third day of the TMT protest, July 17. PC: Crystal Richard

Hawai‘i County Mayor Harry Kim is the state’s official representative in its dealings with the kia‘i, or protectors, atop Mauna Kea blocking the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

But it’s not a position he accepted lightly.

In an interview with Big Island Now on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, Mayor Kim said he was slightly taken aback when he received a phone call from the governor Monday night explaining that talks about moving Mayor Kim front and center on all things Mauna Kea had gained traction.

“Yeah, I was a little bit (surprised) to tell you the truth,” Mayor Kim said. “I did tell him I wish it was earlier that he’d asked. I was surprised because when the governor asks you to take over something in the midst of where we are, I thought that was quite an admittance from him that he needed to find a better way. I’m glad he was of that thinking. Not that I’m the best choice.”

The mayor’s hesitation to take over stemmed primarily from the fact that despite being born and raised on Hawai‘i Island, he himself is not of Hawaiian descent. 


“I told him he should look at others—respected leadership and maybe from the Hawaiian community,” Mayor Kim said. “There was a lot of discussion. I didn’t just say, ‘I’ll do it.'”

The mayor said the decision to install him as the face of state operations on Mauna Kea was ultimately made following talks between the governor and his staff. Gov. Ige felt Mayor Kim’s location and history on Hawai‘i Island, as well as his background in Civil Defense and established relationship with the island’s people, equipped him best for the job.

Mayor Kim added that to regard the governor’s decision as taking a step back from the situation would be inaccurate.

He also said it isn’t fair to characterize the governor’s relationship with the Hawaiian people as too strained to allow him to negotiate effectively.

Gov. Ige earlier in the week made public information that law enforcement officers observed beer and smelled marijuana in the pu‘uhonua set up on the mountain for people to gather during the first week of the protest. His comments were met with considerable anger from many of the protectors who felt it was slanderous toward the entire group to publicize the misdeeds of a selective few, Mayor Kim said.

TMT protest, DAY 3, Wednesday, July 17, 2019. PC: Gerald Besson


The mayor and the governor ascended Mauna Kea on Tuesday evening, where Mayor Kim said Gov. Ige apologized to the crowd for those comments. Partial video of the trip can be viewed on the Big Island Now website.

Mayor Kim said he believed the governor was very impacted by what he saw, telling the crowd twice he “learned a lot” from his visit.

“He saw the order and warmth and sincerity of the protectors on the mountain,” the mayor continued. “They listened to him gracefully. There was no disturbance of any kind when the governor spoke.”

New role

Details are a bit murky on precisely the role the mayor is stepping into, as certain powers rest solely with the governor, even if he has named Mayor Kim the state’s representative with regards to the situation on Mauna Kea.

Women Mauna Protectors block Mauna Kea Access Road on third day of TMT protest, July 17. PC: Crystal Richard


The authority to take police off the mountain “lies with the governor,” Kim said, but added he “…will have the so-called authority to make that request or make (decisions) in regards to any kind of response.”

Only Gov. Ige can rescind the emergency proclamation. The proclamation stands for one month, at which point the governor can re-evaluate or re-issue.

The public has primarily focused on how the proclamation allows for the state to call in the National Guard, Mayor Kim said. As such, several elected officials have called for Gov. Ige to rescind it.

But the larger purpose of the proclamation is to allow for maneuverability. It eliminates certain regulations by which the state would otherwise have to abide, such as procurement procedures for the purchasing and distribution of any supplies during a disaster. Declaring state of emergency is something Mayor Kim does for the county whenever there is even a hurricane watch, as it eliminates bureaucracy and allows him to respond more deftly and quickly.

The mayor said he doesn’t know if he’ll recommend the governor rescind the proclamation in less than a month, but added he has no problems with it currently.

“I have no negatives about it because we don’t have armed National Guard people (on the mountain),” Mayor Kim said. “Whether (Gov. Ige) will rescind it in less than a month, I don’t know. Right now there is no discussion of any kind to activate the Guard here.”

The way ahead

Mayor Kim was scheduled to meet with police, the sheriff’s office and the Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement, a branch of the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Wednesday afternoon.

He said his first priority moving forward will be to gather leaders of the kia‘i and the larger Hawaiian community for the first of what he expects will be several meetings to come. The mayor didn’t have a meeting scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon, but said it’s certain to come within the week.

TMT protest, DAY 3, Wednesday, July 17, 2019. PC: Gerald Besson

“I will gather some leaders of the Hawaiian community to explain to them the direction I would like to go, and I will gain input from all of them—where to go, how to get there,” Mayor Kim said.

The end goal is not necessarily the construction of TMT, he continued, and the fate of the telescope remains unsure.

“I’m responsible to try to do the best thing for most of the people,” the mayor said. “The best thing is for us to be together in where we go and how we get there. I’m trying to find out what direction we can agree to go on.”

The mayor didn’t elaborate on any specific actions protectors have said they’d require before they’d consider descending the mountain. While those clarifications will be crucial to resolution, Mayor Kim said it’s important to take a wide view of what the protectors’ presence on the mountain actually represents.

“Yes the mountain is an issue,” he said. “Yes the (telescope) is an issue. But for many, that is not even the issue. For all of us who are non-Hawaiians, which I am, we must realize what is happening at Mauna Kea is about the wrongs done to indigenous people … that go back well over 100 years and more. These are scars that remain fresh and this is now the catalyst to bring those things out. This is about the recognition of a deeply painful history of intrusions on the first nation of Hawai‘i.”

“You have now a podium and a platform to be something that’s been suppressed for many generations, and this is of being proud to be a Hawaiian,” Mayor Kim continued. “I mean that in all the sincerity I can convey. A platform, finally.”

The mayor did speak to some of the finer details, such as dealing with the departure of 56 police officers from the mountain back to O‘ahu and Maui. Those officers will not be replaced because they don’t need to be, he said.

Extra law enforcement was transferred to Hawai‘i Island for crowd and traffic control in anticipation of TMT transporting equipment up the mountain for construction. Now that said mission no longer exists, they’re returning.

Now in its 10th day, the situation atop Mauna Kea remains delicate and dynamic, and Mayor Kim said he’s approaching every single interaction with care.

“Everything we say and how we say it and what we say will determine how successful we are or how we fail,” he said.

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