The three leading mayoral candidates staked out territory during a forum Monday evening in Kona that was short on fireworks, but began to provide a degree of continuity of style among them.
It was not an opportunity or exercise in which incumbent Hawaii Mayor Billy Kenoi, County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong or former two-term Mayor Harry Kim took shots at each other. In a somewhat sedate session of questions and answers, they tried to establish their positions.
Kenoi, seated next to Kim, touted his accomplishments with homeless shelters, affordable housing and the civic center, as well as the midlevel road, and that he “has not raised your taxes” and has trimmed spending.
Kim, missing an opportunity immediately to remind voters many of Kenoi’s accomplishments, save the road, were his, and fell back instead on a decade-old campaign theme of his: the need for a kinder, more responsive and more receptive county government, as well as a need to return to the concepts, intentions and adherence to the community development plans and processes, something he said has been compromised to the detriment of communities desiring those plans.
Yagong, meanwhile, fell immediately into his call for fiscal accountability from the county, specifically in its inclusion of GASB 45 retirement fund payments in the budget, something suspended by Kenoi.
It was a replay of fiscal philosophy differences between the mayor and council leader, one that has played out in earlier public meetings and forums, a difference upon which even so-called financial experts disagree. Yagong continues to argue the need to pay, Kenoi responds “it’s all paid up,” with Hawaii County’s positive payment balance — relative to the other counties — as well as the fact the council passed his most recent budget, sans any amendments and contribution, on an eight-to-one vote.
Kim, whose terms enjoyed a robust economic climate and growing property tax revenues, kept it simple, saying that, unlike his former executive assistant, he would have paid the GASB 45 bills.
It’s a topic keen to keep actuarial experts talking well into the night, but few others.
Kenoi, meanwhile, postures physically and verbally from perspective of comfort established by a healthy campaign chest cushion, as well as his record as an incumbent. That, however, does little to stem his bending the truth by omission with a degree of regularity.
As he boasted to the crowd assembled in the Kealakehe High School cafeteria that he “had not raised your taxes,” he must have assumed everyone there was in the homeowner classification of real property tax. He would have been correct, in that highly unlikely case. Otherwise, he would have had to acknowledge his administration’s increase of other property taxes, including the residential classification, that has shifted even more of the island’s property tax burden to West Hawaii.
It’s an attorney’s omission: You only raise the information supporting your argument and disavow the rest — until pressed.
Kim, meanwhile, has slowed and softened his public persona, as he repeatedly calls upon government to be more responsive and receptive, perhaps an effort to build upon his name recognition and cultivate the perception of him as a paternal figure of sorts, the calming voice in the storm and a source of reassurance stemming from the days of the audible “this is Harry Kim, your Hawaii County Civil Defense.”
Yet the public Kim was always a different persona than Kim the mayor and manager, his former department heads tell.
Yagong, who is campaigning from the bully pulpit rather than his campaign account, which, much like Kim’s, would be hard-pressed to bankroll a good used car, is still struggling to find a political argument stronger than GASB 45 and fiscal austerity. While defensible arguments, they are not those to enrapture potential voters. Yet Yagong continues to drive ahead, reiterating consistently the austerity sermon to a congregation with more than a few sleepy, nodding heads, as he is the practitioner of legislation, the guy working on the line who assembles the parts and knows their intent, positive or otherwise. He has yet to master his delivery, too often stumbling on minutia as the big picture is obscured.
Meanwhile, Kenoi’s delivery is more masterful, long on style, gesticulations and asserts, if often short on detail or factual basis. If it sounds good, it works well: “On time and under budget,” oft cited, not always germane, comes to mind.
Kim, meanwhile, continues in his avuncular style, striving for comfort and inoffensiveness, a throwback to simpler times, simpler issues — and more money.
The three differed on solid waste issues, Yagong calling for the buffer of time an additional Hilo landfill would create to allow improved long-term decisions, while Kenoi and Kim focused on technology-driven answers to a problem that has simmered since the early 1990s, the limited usable lifespan of the Hilo landfill. But none had a definitive, long-term solution to offer.
Geothermal again split the candidates, though all leaned in support of the energy technology and so-called energy independence for the island. Yagong criticized a proposed 1,000 megawatt plant to feed power to the rest of the state with interisland cables. Kim, meanwhile, falling back on his institutional knowledge, called for improved safety and technology to prevent the blowouts experienced in the 1990s that impacted nearby Puna residents.
Each of the candidates has shown through experience his leadership ability. It might be simpler, as voter, to consider your property tax payment as a handful of cash. Which of them would you entrust to hold it on your behalf — or spend it — because that, ultimately, is the distillation of the mayor’s job: trust and money.