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County Council approves creation of Office of Sustainability, Climate, Equity and Resilience

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The Hawai‘i County Council on Wednesday approved the creation of a cabinet-level Office of Sustainability, Climate, Equity and Resilience — and a new section of county code to govern it — that will lead the County’s efforts to ensure the island can withstand the effects of climate change.

Photo courtesy of PixaBay.

The Council voted 6-2 to adopt Bill 48 on second and final reading, with Vice Chairman Holeka Inaba absent at the time of the vote and members Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder and Cindy Evans voting no.

The next step for the new agency is getting an administrator in place. The office is under the supervision of the county managing director and the administrator will be appointed by the mayor, with confirmation needed from the council.

County Council Chairwoman Heather Kimball said once Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth selects his nominee for the position, she will work with the mayor to get his nominee on the next available Council agenda for confirmation.

That likely will take a couple of months. Anyone interested in filling the new post can reach out now to the mayor’s office.

In the interim, descriptions for the other positions within the new agency will be crafted and posted so recruitment can begin shortly after the administrator is onboard. The administrator will oversee a handful of employees, including a public outreach and communications coordinator, data visualization analyst, policy analyst and grant specialist.

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“This is a dream come true for me,” Kimball said about the new sustainability office’s creation.

Before entering office, she was a climate scientist and owner of a consulting firm that assists in carbon mitigation and climate change adaptation policy. Kimball said Bill 48 and its adoption are the culmination of a decade’s worth of work.

“It’s exciting to see the product of so many great minds and hearts coming together and coming to fruition,” the chairwoman said.

Kimball introduced the measure with Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, who sees the new office as a “legacy project.” They both appreciate the support the bill has received from Roth’s Administration, the County departments and those who testified in support.

“I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to move our county in this direction,” Villegas said.

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The agency will be tasked with coordinating and managing tools the County already has in place. It also will be responsible for creating new 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.

Regular engagement with individuals and organizations in the community that battle climate change and its impacts also will be part of the new office’s kuleana (responsibility).

The new office also is charged with making sure policies and programs are equitable for various communities in Hawai‘i County, especially those in lower and middle income, Native Hawaiian and historically marginalized communities.

Examples of projects, policies and programs the new agency will 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.

Kimball after Wednesday’s meeting said the timing of the office’s new creation is spot on when it comes to the County’s proposed Integrated Climate Action Plan, the final draft of which will be on the Council’s agenda later this month. The sustainability and climate office, once it’s up and running, will be able to provide technical support to start implementing that plan, including code revision and policy recommendations as well as education, making sure people are aware of what needs to be done and why particular actions are necessary.

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Another main objective of the new office will be to put Hawai‘i County is a stronger position to apply for federal grants, which can provide hundreds of millions of dollars for programs dedicated to sustainability, climate change mitigation and adaptation and resilience.

Bill 48 establishes a climate action revolving fund to support the work of the new office.

Kimball added after Wednesday’s meeting that a lot of the federal grant funds will be up for grabs already by this fall, some as early as September. Capitalizing on those funds will be one of the first things the new office undertakes. That’s one of the main reasons it was important for the new agency to be established as soon as possible.

The other is climate change itself. Kimball said the world is getting closer to a point of no return, adding the sooner the County can start working and collaborating with stakeholders on climate, sustainability and resilience issues, the better off it will be.

Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz recalled that it was about five years ago, during her first term on the Council, that former Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter introduced a resolution seeking urgent action by the County to address the climate crisis. She said with Bill 48, the Council is finally moving in that direction. Taking coordinated and collective action to address the issues surrounding climate change is absolutely necessary to confront the crisis in a meaningful way.

“It’s been a long time needed, so I’m happy we’re able to pass this today for our children, our grandchildren and their children’s children,” added Councilwoman Jenn Kagiwada.

To read Bill 48, click here.

In other business Wednesday, the Council unanimously voted down the first reading of Bill 230 that would have established a Downtown Hilo Business Improvement District to finance supplemental public safety, sanitation, landscaping and maintenance services and infrastructure upgrades.

Those services would have been paid for by an assessment of $1.50 per $1,000 of total net taxable value on 313 commercial properties within the proposed district, or a total of $367,000 for the first operating year of the improvement district.

Siting a lack of support for the measure from the public and other efforts planned to address the same concerns, including by the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association, the Council decided to vote down the bill now instead of postponing it again.

The bill was introduced last October and postponed several times before Wednesday. It also was the subject of a public hearing in February.

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 nathan@bigislandnow.com
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