Proposed Hawaiʻi County office of sustainability, climate moving forward

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The Hawai‘i County Council on Wednesday moved forward with a measure to create a new cabinet-level agency to help the Big Island weather the storm of climate change now and for the future.

Big Island Now file illustration

Council members voted 5-1 to approve the first reading of Bill 48, which would create by ordinance a new Hawai’i County Office of Sustainability, Climate, Equity and Resilience and a new Chapter 37 in county code that lays out its responsibilities.

Council members Sue Lee Loy, Ashley Kierkiewicz and Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder were absent and Councilwoman Cindy Evans voting no.

While Evans agrees with the measure’s intent, she voted against the first reading because she thinks creating any new county office or department should be put forth via a County Charter amendment so voters could have a say.

The bill is the brainchild of County Council Chairwoman Heather Kimball and Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas; and it comes with the backing of Hawai’i County Mayor Mitch Roth.


The office would advise the Council and mayor’s office on policy development and be under the supervision of the county managing director. It also would be expected to provide the Council with an annual sustainability report.

The new agency would have a beginning budget of $619,326, which the Council included in the County’s fiscal year 2023-24 spending plan in anticipation of its creation. Bill 48 also would establish a climate action revolving fund to support policies and programs promoting the objectives of the new office.

The sustainability agency would be led by an administrator appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Council. Originally, the bill proposed the administrator serve no more than two consecutive six-year terms, but an amendment approved Wednesday also would give the mayor the power to remove the administrator, making that term limit moot.

At the minimum, the new office’s chief would be expected to have experience leading a major sustainability, climate action, environmental management, environmental or social justice program or a related field. The chief also would need to have technical knowledge of the science behind climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainability and natural resource management.


Furthermore, the chief should understand the Native Hawaiian culture and unique environmental and social justice issues in Hawai‘i and have experience with project management, interagency collaboration, policy development and securing outside funding.

A bachelor’s degree and five years of experience or a master’s degree and three years of experience are preferred for the administrator position, which would oversee a handful of employees, including a public outreach and communications coordinator, data visualization analyst, policy analyst and grant specialist.

Examples of projects, policies and programs the new agency would undertake include:

  • Developing ways to continue the County’s energy efficiency efforts and reduction of fossil fuel use
  • Preparing for more severe drought, storms and sea level rise, which could mean making plans and moving critical infrastructure away from inundation zones
  • Finding long-term resilience solutions such as identifying evacuation routes and upgrading infrastructure to better prepare for disasters.

One of the main objectives of the new office would be to put Hawai‘i County is a stronger position to apply for and receive a large amount of funding available via federal grants and other programs dedicated to sustainability, climate change mitigation and adaptation and resilience.


Creating the new office makes an important statement that the County is prioritizing climate change mitigation and adaptation, resilience, equity and sustainability, Kierkiewicz said during the May 16 meeting of the Council’s Governmental Operations and External Affairs Committee.

Kimball said during the same meeting that it also tells the next generation that the Council cared enough to take steps now to implement these types of necessary programs for the future.

Kimball and Villegas said Wednesday that they are thankful for the continued support for Bill 48 from the public.

The second reading of the measure likely will be considered during the Council’s first regular session in July.

To read Bill 48, click here.

The responsibilities of the new agency would include:

  • Establishing policies and programs to promote sustainability, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and build the County’s resilience to the impacts of climate change and other natural and human-caused hazards.
  • Improving environmental justice and equity by promoting policies and actions to make sure the County’s sustainability, climate change mitigation and adaptation and resilience efforts also benefit lower and middle income, Native Hawaiian and historically marginalized communities.
  • Regularly engaging stakeholders to assess and assure polices and actions are implemented in an immediate, direct and coordinated manner and employ equitable strategies.
  • Developing shared metrics, benchmarks and data tools to track and communicate progress toward the County’s sustainability, climate mitigation and adaptation, equity and resilience goals.
  • Coordinating communication between County departments and community partners to develop and promote a shared vision and collaboration to implement solutions based on a clear understanding of the issues and challenges climate change creates.
  • Providing and coordinating technical support to County departments to create polices and programs for combating climate change to implement and measure them in a sustainable and equitable way.
  • Collaborating with County departments and community stakeholders on strategies to maximize the collective impact through mutually reinforcing activities and provide education, outreach and support internally and externally to promote climate sustainability and climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives in an equitable and resilient manner.
  • Evaluating potential impacts of climate change on County facilities and infrastructure and providing budget recommendations to mitigate those impacts, as well as policy analysis and proposing legislation to implement plans.
  • Investigating and providing technical support for grant applications and management to support funding to implement climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainability and resilience plans and preparing programs and contracts with the federal government to be transmitted to the Council for approval.
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 [email protected]
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