Election

Hawai‘i County Inauguration Day Marks Multiple Firsts

December 8, 2020, 1:00 PM HST
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Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth.

Mitch Roth became the first Hawai‘i County Mayor to be inaugurated in Kailua-Kona, as he rose his right hand and took the oath of office as part of a largely virtual ceremony at the West Hawai‘i Civic Center Monday afternoon.

The new mayor spoke of faith and family before getting down to brass tax, making statements both generally about how he will approach his first term as mayor and more specifically about immediate goals.

“While the county can’t fix everything, we will do what we can to take care of you and your families, (whether that is) providing aid, enforcing regulations, or simply getting out of the way,” Roth said.

The mayor added that he plans to rally behind the Safe Travels Hawai‘i Program, which recently identified coronavirus in his son via the test he received as part of the state’s travel protocol.

“I think that program is working, and I plan to support that moving forward,” the mayor said.

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The most crucial question, however, Roth didn’t have an answer for: How will he support the travel program when much of the funding for coronavirus testing at Big Island airports runs out after Dec. 15?

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On that date, several funding elements key to testing dissipate, even while some state assistance and use of the Hawai‘i National Guard will remain for a time. Furthermore, all CARES Act funding must be spent by the new year.

More federal funding for small businesses and unemployment programs is likely with bipartisan support in Washington behind a new $900 billion relief package. It’s unclear, however, if significant funding for initiatives like mass coronavirus testing at Hawai‘i airports would be included, as the package is much smaller than what was provided by the CARES Act. Such monies may prove more of a hope for down the road than an expectation in the immediate future.

With only one week left before a significant portion of funding evaporates, along with a daily bill of $80,000 to handle the logistics of mainland travel and testing, Roth faces a pivotal moment early in his tenure as mayor.

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“Hopefully, we’ll have answers by the end of this week,” Roth said. “We’re working with private funders that are very interested in helping us, so we’ll see how that works.”

Macro and Micro

Mayor Roth, in his speech Monday, leaned on the notion of changing government culture, invoking the Golden Rule and speaking of agencies as tools to help citizens thrive — common themes throughout his campaign and afterward. He continued to say that he and his cabinet will spend more time on the west side of the Big Island, a common citizen complaint of mayors past.

On a micro level, the newly inaugurated mayor said one of his earliest goals will be to offer transparency by way of media access. A lack of public press events was a criticism of former Mayor Harry Kim’s administration, particularly during decision-making processes surrounding county response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A passenger arrives in Hawaii during the pandemic. PC: HDOT

Hand-in-hand with transparency will be the goal of creating a system by which the public can be more active agents in their own government, though the Roth administration has yet to detail the precise mechanisms that will achieve this.

Roth added that he will immediately push to speed up the county’s permitting process, which should save business concerns some coin. Common sense policies, particularly around the coronavirus, will rule the day under the new administration, Roth promised.

“We may be passing some rules that say this rule is going to be suspended,” he said.

As an example, Roth noted restrictions on tents at public schools, which are used to push classes outdoors and make them safer, simply because they are temporary structures. He also talked about waving regulations against outdoor, sidewalk-style dining for restaurants.

Finally, each department head in the new administration will be tasked with creating metrics to measure performance so progress, or lack thereof, can be tracked. Again, the mechanisms for achieving this goal have yet to be detailed.

Other Faces in Office

Kelden Waltjen, who replaces Roth as the county’s prosecuting attorney, took his oath in the County Council’s Hilo Chambers, as the inauguration ceremony was split to both sides of the island.

Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Kelden Waltjen.

The son of former Parks and Recreation Director Roxcie Waltjen, Kelden grew up around county government.

“This really is full circle for me,” he said. “I feel very honored to be sworn into office in a place where I have very fond memories, and which has played a part in … making me who I am.”

Waltjen acknowledged a spike in violent and other serious crimes, as well as increases in the use of hard drugs across the Big Island population over recent years. He said he will support stiffer penalties for violent and repeat offenders, but that he also plans to expand treatment and rehabilitation programs.

“We need to do more to protect our people and our keiki before they even enter the system,” Waltjen said.

The Big Island’s new lead prosecutor added that he will assign deputies to each district in an effort to keep his office more in touch with each community while pushing to strengthen interagency relationships.

Councilwoman Maile David (District 6) was named Council Chair Monday, the first Hawaiian-born woman to ever hold the position.

Hawaii County Council Chair Maile Medeiros David.

She talked of her upbringing on the island, when speaking the Hawaiian language was prohibited and books about the history of Hawai‘i, its rulers, and their overthrow were not accessible. She detailed her journey with benchmarks, like women’s suffrage in 1959 and the revision to a law in 1967 erasing a mandate that required each Hawaiian-born child be given a Christian name.

“We’ve come a very long way, but challenges will continue,” David said. “I feel the awareness, knowledge, and cultural pride of our people is … thriving, and our journey is everlasting.”

David spoke for the entire Council, seven of whom are returning to their positions. Two new members, Heather Kimball of District 1 and Holeka Goro Inaba of District 8, were sworn into office for the first time Monday.

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