Four candidates vying for the Hawaii County Council District 2 seat discussed issues facing downtown Hilo and beyond at a candidate forum Friday evening.
The Hilo Downtown Improvement Association hosted the forum at the East Hawaii Cultural Center. The district includes the downtown area and is currently represented by J Yoshimoto, who is facing a term limit.
Questions mostly had to do with downtown issues, such as traffic, parking and homelessness. But the candidates in attendance — Margarita Hopkins, Kerri Marks, Shane Gali and Aaron Chung — also were asked about their thoughts on two of the more controversial topics on the island: waste management and genetically modified crops.
The landfill in Hilo is nearing capacity, and the county has solicited requests for proposals for a waste reduction facility. Each of the three finalists in the RFP process are waste-to-energy incineration companies.
Moderator Christine Mingo asked the candidates if they support rerouting waste from some of the transfer stations that supply the West Hawaii landfill to an incinerator in East Hawaii.
Marks said trucking garbage is a “very bad idea.”
“Trucking garbage leaks garbage all over the ground,” she said. “We don’t want to be the land of aloha and garbage smell.”
Hopkins said she is against burning waste to create energy, and said sending East Hawaii garbage to the West Hawaii landfill where there aren’t the same capacity problems would be cheaper.
“We have to address those that can’t be recycled,” she said.
Gali said he doesn’t think the county can afford an incinerator.
“I don’t think we can produce enough trash,” he said.
Chung said he needs to gather all the facts before making a decision but noted he would keep Mayor Billy Kenoi to his word that an incinerator wouldn’t impact the county’s recycling program.
“That’s a very strong statement by him,” Chung said. “I’m going to hold him to that.”
On genetically modified organisms, the candidates were asked if they would uphold the county’s current restrictions.
Chung, an attorney and former council member, said he thinks the GMO ban is prohibited by state and federal law but added he would not seek to undo it.
“I have no problem with GMO products,” he said. “I eat it, I let my kids eat it.”
Hopkins, a former county agricultural specialist, said she supports all types of agriculture and noted GMO crops are regulated by three federal agencies: Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency.
“I know a lot of people don’t believe it’s safe,” she said. “The fact of the matter is we have three main federal government agencies who oversee it before it’s even provided to the public for consumption.”
Gali said he supports more oversight of GMO crops.
“I’m afraid … it’s experimenting with food,” he said.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Gali added in regard to risk.
Marks said she attended each of the lengthy public comment sessions the county had about the subject last year.
“I will not overturn the GMO ban,” she said.
“I know everything about the GMO ban.”
Marks referred to herself as a citizen journalist, and is a frequent attendee of county government meetings where she can be seen shooting video, which she uploads to the Internet for the public to view.
The candidates also were asked about homelessness.
Chung said government needs to get to the root of the problem, including addressing mental illness.
Gali, who has worked as a social worker, police officer and previously ran the state’s child care assistance program on the Big Island, said alternative housing or micro-housing should be pursued.
Hopkins also said the government needs to look at underlying issues and give “resources not just lip service.”
Marks said she previously worked in homeless outreach for the Office of Social Ministry and noted cuts in services. She said she would not support laws making it easier for law enforcement to remove homeless people’s belongings.
“It’s time we approach homelessness with a comprehensive stance and not just passing more laws against the things people do,” Marks said.
On other downtown issues, the candidates supported creating a bus route from the airport to downtown and the cruise ship terminal.
Hopkins, Chung and Gali said they would support public-private partnerships to increase parking. Marks said she thinks those arrangements usually benefit private landowners more than the public.
Each appeared to agree the intersection at Bayfront Highway and Waianuenue Avenue could be improved, but not all appeared to fully support creating a roundabout there.
Gali said a roundabout could be a workable solution. Chung said he would be open to the idea but would need more information. Marks said it would depend on how it’s designed. Hopkins said she is skeptical about using roundabouts for high traffic areas.
A member of the audience asked the candidates about their stances on creating a community-owned utility.
Marks said she supports creating a publicly owned utility for the island.
Gali, Hopkins and Chung said they would be interested in hearing more about such an idea.
William Halversen, who identified himself as homeless, also is running for the District 2 post. HDIA President Steven Markham said the organization called the number listed on his nomination papers but didn’t hear back soon enough to include him.
Halversen attended the forum and said he was upset he couldn’t participate.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.