The world didn’t end this month. But 2012 will.
That marks the time to look at the top stories of the year:
1. Election problems
In a year when election news dominated local — and national — discussion, it was the problems on Hawaii Island leading up to the primary election and late-opening polls in West Hawaii that topped the year’s stories.
In early summer, County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi hinted at problems within the county’s voter rolls, going so far as to conduct an audit and meet with the state Attorney General’s Office. The investigation resulted in Kawauchi closing elections offices for a day, just weeks before the primary, which other elected county officials questioned. The closure, and Kawauchi’s comments, prompted a scathing letter from the state’s top elections official, who said he was fielding calls from worried island residents.
What did Kawauchi’s audit find? Fifty to 60 people voted twice in 2010.
Through all the buildup, elections employees were apparently stewing over Kawauchi’s decision to sack former Elections Chief Pat Nakamoto and several other employees in early 2012, after an investigation revealed possible improper conduct on county property. Several employees suffered a case of the “blue flu,” calling in sick on primary election day. The end result? Three polling places in West Hawaii opened late. State elections officials and Gov. Neil Abercrombie intervened, allowing several precincts to stay open later.
The state then took over the elections process for the General Election on the Big Island. That election wrapped up without incident on Hawaii Island.
2. Hawaii County’s elections
Mayor Billy Kenoi squeaked past his old boss, Harry Kim, for a second term as the county’s top administrator. Kim threw his name into the ring at the last minute, filing in June, after Kenoi and former County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong had already been battling for the job for several months. Kenoi outspent Kim by a significant margin, $683,774 to Kim’s $23,950.
With several council members leaving their posts because of term limits or to seek higher office, and with newly drawn council districts potentially pitting incumbents against each other, six new faces joined the county’s legislative governing body. In the race to be the county’s prosecuting attorney, Mitch Roth defeated a far-more politically connected opponent by a narrow margin.
3. Lockdown at Kealakehe High School
Simmering racial tensions and teenage hormones clashed at Kealakehe High School earlier this month, erupting in several fights. School officials put the campus under lockdown one day, added security the next, then closed the school for a day. Department of Education officials said the impetus for the violence included bullying, taunting and comments relating to the school’s Micronesian population.
The school adopted a restricted schedule for the first day back, then a few days of modified schedules while students took finals before the winter break.
4. Burglaries plague South Kona
A rash of burglaries in the fall left South Kona residents locking their doors and amping up their neighborhood watch duties. Victims included a Captain Cook group home, where developmentally disabled residents lost electronics and other personal items.
The Police Department dedicated 20 officers to investigate the crimes, and a tip led to the first arrest. Police said an organized crime ring was using the stolen items to pay for drugs. By the end of September, police arrested 11 people, most of whom had extensive criminal histories.
One, Ryan Jeffries-Hamar, escaped from police custody in Hilo earlier this month and spent more than a week evading detection, before he was arrested in East Hawaii and jailed again.
5. Hokulia folds for good
The investors behind Hokulia, the embattled central Kona coastal development that promised a Keauhou-Napoopoo bypass road, gave up this year. The handful of staff still associated with Hokulia and 1250 Oceanside Partners lost their jobs as the office shut its doors.
The good news: After more than a decade of litigation, Hawaii County managed to get a settlement in place for the bypass alignment, both from property owners along the route and an agreement from the bond insurance company for some cash to put toward building the road. The county also got about $20 million in land from Oceanside, which the county is now using as a mortgage against the $20 million the developer still owes the county for the road construction costs.
Already, Hawaii County has accepted the road lots for the northern bypass section and was this month in the process of bringing the road up to county standards. It could be open around the clock and fully owned by the county by early next year.
6. Traffic fatalities spike
After several years of decreasing traffic deaths, the fatalities on Hawaii Island increased dramatically this year. As of late December, 38 people had died on Hawaii County roads this year, compared with 21 last year. Roughly two-thirds of the deaths were in West Hawaii.
Police said speed, alcohol and drugs were contributing factors in most of the crashes, but couldn’t pinpoint a reason for the dramatic increase this year.
7. Keauhou Beach Hotel closes
An iconic Kona Coast hotel shut its doors Oct. 31, after decades of hosting visitors from around the world. Kamehemeha Schools and its investment branch, Kamehameha Investment Corp., announced the decision to close the hotel, adjacent to Kahaluu Beach Park, in September. About 110 people lost their jobs when the hotel ceased operations.
Kamehameha Schools officials said the hotel had lost millions in the last few years, although they declined to offer an exact figure. The plan, officials said, was to close the hotel, sell the fixtures and furnishings, then begin the lengthy environmental study process that would precede demolishing the hotel. Officials said they did not intend to rebuild a newer hotel on the spot, but wanted to dedicate the land for cultural and educational uses.
The hotel was built in the late 1960s.
8. Wrapping up reapportionment
The state’s Reapportionment Committee gave Hawaii Island a fourth Senate seat in 2011, but the new boundary lines remained in jeopardy for several months this year after Oahu residents filed a lawsuit appealing the decision. Elections officials planned for a fourth Hawaii Island seat, which incumbent Sen. Malama Solomon easily won in November, while the lawsuit made its way through the court system.
The U.S. District Court is set to hear motions from those Oahu residents’ attorneys next month. If they prevail, the court could require the state to redraw the boundaries before the 2016 elections.
9. Ane Keohokalole Highway opens
Some said it couldn’t be done: Hawaii County rushed to design, finish environmental studies and pour concrete on the long-planned midlevel road in time to meet federal stimulus funding requirements, and Mayor Kenoi delivered. In fact, Kenoi offered county residents a bit of underpromise and overdeliver, first claiming the county could only afford to pave the road from Palani Road to Kealakehe Parkway, then in January announcing good management practices, and some good luck, meant the road would extend to Hina-Lani Street.
The road opened in June.
10. Hawaii County evicts Lui, others from Kawa Bay
Years of protests — and illegal occupation of the property — ended in October, when Hawaii County finally evicted Abel Lui and several of his friends from Kawa Bay in Ka‘u. Lui left quietly, although one of his supporters was arrested. Police stood guard at the beach access road for about a month, giving the land a respite from visitors while the county conducted archaeological surveys.
A county official said they’ve found dozens of historic sites around the bay on the site obtained by the county for use as a park area.
The beach partially reopened in early December.
The county continued to deal with the arrival of axis deer. A Mountain View hunter was convicted this year of illegally possessing a game animal for helping bring three axis deer to the island in 2009. At the time, it wasn’t illegal to bring them.
A New York teenager died in July after a wave pulled him out to sea at Kealakekua Bay. The county searched for the boy for several days.
Changes are coming to health care in West Hawaii. Kaiser Permanente broke ground for a new, larger clinic on Queen Kaahumanu Highway. Alii Health Center moved to consolidate office space at Keauhou Shopping Center. Kona Community Hospital embarked on the long process that may culminate in a new hospital several years from now.
The Hawaii Judiciary selected a site for a new court complex near the West Hawaii Civic Center.