Hawaiʻi County Council gives favorable recommendation to new sustainability office

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A bill that would create a new cabinet-level Office of Sustainability, Climate, Equity and Resilience moved a step forward Tuesday with a favorable recommendation by the Hawaiʻi County Council’s Governmental Operations and External Affairs Committee,

Bill 48 was introduced by Council Chairwoman Heather Kimball and Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas and has the backing of Mayor Mitch Roth and his administration.

The new office would coordinate and manage County policies and programs to address sustainability, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change and other natural and human-caused hazards.

Bill 48, which create a new Office of Sustainability, Climate, Equity and Resilience for Hawaiʻi County, received a favorable recommendation Tuesday from the Council’s Governmental Operations and External Affairs Committee. (Screenshot from Hawaiʻi County draft Integrated Climate Action Plan)

“This is to leave a legacy for our next generation; to let them know that we cared enough now to take the steps to actually implement the programs that we know we need to do and that we’re going to do,” Kimball said. “This is our kuleana (responsibility) — to make sure that we leave this world better for our children and our grandchildren.”

After more than 90 minutes of discussion about the bill, the committee voted 7-1, with Councilwoman Cindy Evans opposed and Villegas excused, to move the bill forward to first reading.

Two weeks ago, the County published its draft Integrated Climate Action Plan, with public comment accepted until June 1.


The new office would oversee that plan and all of the County’s existing plans focused on sustainability, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and resilience, and look at gaps in their implementation.

Heather Kimball

It would consolidate all of the County’s efforts on these issues and provide one entity to communicate and collaborate with all county departments, community organizations and the public to take on climate change and make sure policies and programs put in place are equitable for all.

Kimball said the new office would put the County in a stronger position to apply for and receive a large amount of funding available via grants and other programs dedicated to sustainability, climate change and resilience. The wording of Bill 48 was specifically designed to target those funds.

All public testimony on Tuesday was in favor of the bill, with one testifier saying it takes the County to the next level in dealing with these issues.

Some suggested including research and development opportunities within the new office and creating ways to constructively and regularly engage the community.


While written testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of the bill, some expressed concerns about adding another level of bureaucracy and suggested the efforts the new agency would lead could be taken on by existing departments.

Councilwoman Cindy Evans asked why a new office is needed when much of what it would do is already under the purview of the County’s Research and Development Department. She also has concerns about the cost of growing government amid the threat of a recession. Evans would rather see the functions proposed for the new office be placed under R&D instead of creating a standalone agency.

Hawaiʻi County Managing Director Lee Lord told Council members that all of the work on sustainability that has been done since Roth took office has often pulled county departments away from their main objectives and missions, especially R&D. The new office would take pressure off the other departments and ensure sustainability and resiliency are priorities in perpetuity.

Lord said these issues are not going away. This is something the County needs to to do for its citizens.

Other members wondered if the way the new office would be created, through amending county code, was the right way to go instead of doing it by adding it to the Hawaiʻi County Charter.


Hawaiʻi County Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance said there is nothing that prevents a new office from being created by ordinance. And just a few months ago, the Council created a new animal control agency with an identical construct to what is proposed for the sustainability office.

Council members Sue Lee Loy and Jenn Kagiwada expressed concerns about whether the proposed new agency would conflict with any regulations in the County Charter having to do with the responsibilities of other departments and their directors and how it would impact current projects and programs being handled by individual departments.

Elizabeth Strance

Kagiwada also asked if the equity component of the proposed agency would include all issues. Kimball said it would be focused on the equitability of the actions and policies put in place to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The office would have an initial staff of five people, including a sustainability administrator whose position is proposed to be filled through civil service recruitment and would be on a six-year basis, with the possibility of renewing for another six.

Some Council members had concerns about how the administrator would be hired and the position’s term of service. Kimball said most of those who worked on the bill wanted the administrator to be a civil service position.

The new agency would have a preliminary budget of about $870,000, more than half of which would go toward staffing costs. But Kimball expects much of the funding will come from grants. The five positions already were created under the Research and Development Department because the new agency does not yet exist. Those positions are currently unfunded.

That brought questions from Council members about whether they would remain unfunded until after the office is created or would need to be included in the next fiscal year’s budget, which the Council will hold first reading on Thursday. A budget amendment would likely be required to fund the positions.

There also was a question about where the new office would be housed. The agency’s proposed initial budget includes funds for rent, but Kimball said there likely is enough existing space on county property that can be used at no charge. Some also wanted to see more actions outlined in the bill. Kimball said County targets for renewable energy and other climate adaptation and mitigation would be codified in the proposed new code and responsibilities of the new agency.

Bill 48 is only the first step in the process. The chairwoman said once the office is formed and put in place, build out of a new proposed Chapter 37 in county code to govern it, which Bill 48 also would create, could begin to provide more details and a framework for the new office. Kimball said that would happen in short order as a follow-up to this bill.

Yes, there’s work to be done on the measure, but the majority of the Council agreed Bill 48 has a solid foundation. Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz said taking on the issues the legislation wants to tackle is not easy and it might not be perfect, but it makes an important statement that the County is making them a priority — it’s not just a necessity, she said, it’s a moral imperative.

“One of the most exciting afternoons of my time in this job was sitting in a meeting with the working group on this and watching our young people just grab onto this,” said Strance in a rare moment of her sharing her perspective on an issue under Council consideration.

The language behind Bill 48 and its purpose have engaged the next generation in government.

“It’s their language, they’re committed to it, they’re educated around it,” Strance said. “Even watching the testimony today, it’s a topic that has just so much enthusiasm around it, and whether you do it with this bill or not, there is an incredible generation of young people that have a lot of talent to offer to this.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at
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