The Big Island’s top 10 stories of 2012
By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
It’s almost time to ring out the old year and ring in the new one.
We’ve survived what some predicted would be an apocalypse based on the end of the Mayan calendar. Had there been an actual apocalypse and anyone survived, they’d have to do without Twinkies, perhaps the only food capable of surviving an apocalypse.
President Barack Obama survived a challenge from Republican Mitt Romney but is still butting heads with the GOP over the economy and the looming “fiscal cliff” crisis. Mayor Billy Kenoi survived an even stiffer challenge from his onetime boss and mentor, Harry Kim. And Mitch Roth became the first new elected prosecutor on the Big Island in a generation.
Debates rage about gun control and mental health after mass shootings by deranged gunmen in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye died this month after 50 years of service in the senate, and his passing leaves a seniority and leadership void in Hawaii’s congressional delegation.
We’ve lost some other prominent folks, as well, including radio personality Melvin “Mynah Bird” Medeiros, Hilo historian Robert “Steamy” Chow, ‘Imiloa Astronomer-in-Residence Richard Crowe, Hilo grande dame Amy Lannan and musician and lava tour guide Bo Lozoff.
It was a particularly deadly year on Big Island roads, with victims including Lozoff and retired educator Miles Nakanishi, while Crowe died in a bizarre Jeep crash in Arizona.
And the long-promised economic recovery still appears to be more rhetoric than reality.
Here are the Top 10 stories on the Big Island in 2012, as chosen by editorial staff of the Hawaii Tribune-Herald:
1. A perfect storm surrounded the 2012 Big Island elections, and at the eye of the storm was then-County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, who was the island’s elections boss.
In January, Kawauchi fired four elections workers: Pat Nakamoto, elections program administrator; Glen Shikuma, warehouse manager; Shyla Ayau; and Elton Nakagawa. All four were accused of violating the county’s no-alcohol policy by drinking at an elections warehouse the county rents in Hilo. Shikuma, the warehouse supervisor, was also accused of running a sign-printing business there.
Nakamoto and Shikuma sued Kawauchi and her boss, then-County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, but Shikuma, 59, died of an aneurysm in August and Nakamoto’s lawsuit was dismissed by a judge in November. Nakamoto and Ayau were eventually reinstated to their jobs after a grievance process, but Nakamoto took indefinite leave after her reinstatement. A suit by Ayau is still pending.
There was a “blue flu” of elections workers on primary election day in August, and 13 Big Island polling places opened late. That caused Gov. Neil Abercrombie to order voting on the Big Island to be extended by 90 minutes and led to delayed results across the state.
The state Office of Elections issued a report highly critical of Kawauchi’s handling of the primary. The six-page document referenced “poor planning, implementation and leadership” in a blunt assessment of the clerk’s first election. Kawauchi said that criticism of her by state Elections chief Scott Nago “was very personal and it’s inappropriate.”
While the November general elections went smoothly on the Big Island, at least 19 polling places on Oahu ran out of paper ballots, causing long lines at electronic voting machines and many to walk away in frustration without casting a vote.
The Green Party of Hawaii and seven voters representing every major island filed suit against Nago, alleging he improperly promulgated rules dealing with ballot shortages in the general election.
Kawauchi, who was appointed as clerk by Yagong, wasn’t retained by new council leadership and is now a county deputy prosecutor in Kona.
2. Reapportionment and redistricting on the state and county levels also shook up Big Island elections in 2012, causing a game of musical chairs among incumbents.
Hilo Rep. Jerry Chang chose not to play the game, opting to leave public office after 24 years rather than run against fellow Democrat Mark Nakashima of Honokaa for the 1st House District.
Sen. Gil Kahele represented Puna, Ka‘u and part of Hilo in the state Senate, but was moved to the 1st District in Hilo, where he defeated fellow Dem and former County Councilman Donald Ikeda.
State Sen. Malama Solomon, who lives in Waimea, defeated former Councilman Kelly Greenwell of Kona and former Mayor Lorraine Inouye of Hilo in the far-flung 4th District, a new Big Island seat created by reapportionment.
And the county Redistricting Commission put Councilwomen Brittany Smart and Brenda Ford in the same council district, prompting Smart to declare her candidacy for the 3rd District House seat that runs from Panaewa to Pahala. Smart host the House race to Richard Onishi.
An Oahu group that includes three veterans and state Rep. K. Mark Takai filed a federal lawsuit alleging the state Reapportionment Commission violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when it removed nonresident military and students from population counts that determined district lines.
There is a hearing on motions relating to that suit by a panel of three federal judges on Jan. 14 at 10 a.m. in Honolulu.
3. Mayor Billy Kenoi narrowly won another four years as mayor in a November nailbiter election against his challenger and former boss, Harry Kim.
Kenoi, 43, received 31,433 votes, or 51 percent. Kim, 73, who was mayor from 2000-2008, received 29,976 votes, or almost 49 percent.
Kenoi, whose war chest totaled $683,774, spent $21.50 for each vote he garnered in his re-election bid. Kim, whose campaign fund totaled $21,336, spent just 79 cents per vote.
In the hotly contested race for county prosecutor, Deputy Prosecutor Mitch Roth edged county Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida by just 125 votes to become the first new elected prosecutor since 1992. Longtime county Prosecutor Jay Kimura retired in April 2011. First Deputy Prosecutor Charlene Iboshi became prosecutor but chose not to run for election.
Longtime U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka retired at age 88, and U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, won the seat over Republican former Gov. Linda Lingle in what seemed more of a mudslide than a landslide. Akaka briefly became the state’s senior, and only, U.S. Senator, with the death earlier this month of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.
A new County Council has also been seated with Hilo Councilman J Yoshimoto reassuming the chairmanship. Other members are holdovers Dennis Onishi and Brenda Ford, with newcomers Zendo Kern, Valerie Poindexter, Greggor Ilagan, Margaret Wille, Karen Eoff and Dru Kanuha.
4. While it’s much more than a Big Island story, the death of U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye left a void that no one individual could ever hope to fill. Inouye, who died Dec. 17 at age 88 of respiratory complications, served a half-century in the Senate after three years in the U.S. House.
The World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient was a strong advocate for the state, known for using his seniority and leadership skills to secure federal funding for the university system and a host of other issues and projects.
Inouye directed hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding into Big Island projects including the Saddle Road realignment, the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii and the University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Pharmacy.
Inouye’s success at procuring federal funds for Hawaii made him a staunch defender of Congress’ spending authority and earmarks, prompting criticism for some as the “king of pork.”
In an interview with the Tribune-Herald last July, he defended earmarks as being instrumental in getting hundreds of millions of dollars for projects Saddle Road realignment and the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.
“Earmarks played a major role at the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus,” he said then. “If it weren’t for earmarks, you wouldn’t see a school of nursing, a school of pharmacy and all of that, with all this construction.”
5. A 7.7-magnitude earthquake off Canada on Oct. 27 caught many Big Islanders unaware due to initial reports that no tsunami was generated and problems with Hawaii County Civil Defense’s emergency notification system after the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center told residents to anticipate a tsunami.
The warning was issued at 7:09 p.m., but sirens in some areas of East Hawaii didn’t sound until 9:10 p.m., two hours later. Some learned of the tsunami warning earlier via media and social networks.
County officials said 13 of the island’s 71 Civil Defense sirens malfunctioned that night. Repairs have been undertaken, but eight sirens failed in a test earlier this month. A statewide program could bring as many as 15 new sirens to the Big Island in 2013.
There were also problems evacuating Keaukaha residents from the tsunami inundation zone. Sirens didn’t sound there until 9:10 p.m., and residents lined up to evacuate through a makai runway gate at Hilo International Airport, which remained locked until the sirens sounded.
“In spite of those challenges that were experienced, there were no problems with evacuations,” Mayor Billy Kenoi said. “But during every exercise and response, there are things to be learned.”
In addition, there were eight reported residential burglaries in Keaukaha during the evacuation. A suspect was arrested but later released pending further investigation. Burglary of a dwelling during a Civil Defense emergency is a Class A felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
6. There have been almost twice as many traffic fatalities on the Big Island this year as in 2011. As of Dec. 27, there were 38 official traffic deaths on Hawaii Island roads this year, 16 more than in 2011.
February and July were particularly deadly months, with six and eight people killed in traffic crashes, respectively.
Police say that, to date, 28 of the fatalities have been linked to impaired drivers: 12 to drugs; four to alcohol; and 12, a combination of both.
One of those fatal crashes, in particular, caused a great deal of outrage in East Hawaii. On Sept. 10, two women were killed and six other people injured when the van they were in was run off the road by a pickup truck attempting to pass on Mamalahoa Highway near Kalopa, police said.
The van’s occupants, all landscapers for Puna Certified Nursery, were returning home from a job site in Waikoloa.
The pickup’s driver, 30-year-old Alfred Berdon of Honokaa, was arrested on suspicion of two counts of negligent homicide, four counts of negligent injury, DUI and driving with a suspended license and without insurance. He was later released pending investigation of those charges. Police say Berdon was intoxicated and speeding when the crash occurred.
Prosecutors are still awaiting final toxicology reports on Berdon, who is incarcerated for violating his probation in an unrelated 2007 road rage case.
7. The world’s most active volcano, Kilauea, continues to reshape the Big Island’s landscape.
On March 2, the river of molten rock consumed the home of the final holdout of the Kupaianaha-Pu‘u O‘o eruption in Royal Gardens subdivision, Jack Thompson.
“I’ve been preparing for this for years. You’re hoping for the best, but in time expect the inevitable,” Thompson said. “It could have gone somewhere else just as easily, but this time I was in the way.”
In late October, the lava lake at Halema‘uma‘u reached an all-time high of just 89 feet below the floor of the crater, but retreated shortly thereafter, disappointing volcano watchers who had hoped to see molten lava on the crater floor for the first time in 30 years.
Then on Nov. 24, lava from Kilauea entered the ocean in Puna for the first time since the last ocean entry halted on New Year’s Day.
“It’s beautiful. The first (new) ocean entry of 2012, so it’s a welcome sight for all of us,” lava guide Bo Lozoff said on Nov. 25. “For those of us who have seen a lot of ocean entries, it’s not the most dynamic or spectacular one, but for the four people I took out this morning, it’s the most unbelievable experience of their lives.”
Lozoff, 65, who was also a musician known for his Johnny Cash tribute concerts, died less than a week later when his motorcycle collided with a sport-utility vehicle at the corner of Highway 130 and Leilani Avenue near Pahoa.
8. Mayor Kenoi signed the plastic bag ban bill into law in January and earlier this month signed off on rules phasing out plastic checkout bags on Hawaii Island.
“There will be a continuing education effort,” Kenoi told Stephens Media. “Ultimately, the community came together and seems to accept the changes. I think everybody will be able to see (the benefit of the ban) and hopefully experience a relatively seamless transition.”
Retailers have one year, beginning Jan. 17, to phase out their supply of single-use plastic bags. During the first year, retailers may offer plastic bags at a cost to customers.
9. Hawaii Electric Light Co. is seeking bids for further geothermal development on the Big Island.
Currently, the 38-megawatt Puna Geothermal Venture plant outside Pahoa is the state’s only existing geothermal facility.
Innovations Development Group, a Hawaii-based company, has identified property about two miles from Puna Geothermal Venture as a potential site, while a newly established company from Honolulu, Avalor Energy Corp., is considering leasing property near the steam vents on Highway 130, about two miles from Leilani Estates, according to a man who attended a meeting held by the company for nearby residents.
Both companies plan to seek a contract to provide up to 50 megawatts of geothermal power to Hawaii Electric Light Co.
HELCO President Jay Ignacio said the power would be used to meet future demand and any excess energy could be used to reduce the amount of oil it burns to power the grid.
“It’s in order to get lower costs and pass that savings onto our customer,” he said. “That’s what’s driving us.”
10. Meanwhile, HELCO has requested two separate rate hikes from the state’s Public Utilities Commission.
One request is for a for approval of a 4.2 percent rate increase to generate an additional $19.8 million in revenue for HELCO. The company says the extra revenue is needed to fund maintenance for HELCO’s electric grid and system upgrades, as well as the inclusion of more renewable energy technologies. If the entire amount is approved, it would add $8.32 to a typical, 500-kilowatt-hour monthly electric bill.
The other request seeks approval of a biodiesel supply contract between the utility and Aina Koa Pono-Ka‘u LLC. Such a contract would necessitate a related biofuel surcharge for customers to offset the costs associated with production, transportation, and storage of the biodiesel, HELCO says. Consumers would be asked to pay between 84 cents and $1 extra per month for a typical bill.
HELCO touted the plan as an important step in its efforts to find alternative energy sources with which to generate electricity.
Both proposals got a thumbs-down from the 100 or so Big Islanders who showed up for a hearing in Hilo in late October.
Noelani Kalipi, a member of the Big Island Community Coalition, an informal group seeking lower electricity rates for Big Isle residents, said consumers here had been paying some of the highest rates in the country “for far too long.”
“Hawaii residents are having to make some hard decisions,” she said. “‘Do I pay my electricity bill, or do I feed my family?’”
In August, HELCO’s parent company, Hawaiian Electric Co., reported that in its second quarter, which ended on June 30, it had earned $29.4 million in income for the common stock of its electric utilities. That’s about 70 percent more profit than that earned in the same quarter of 2011, which saw a net income for common stock of $17 million.
Several stories that failed to make this list deserve a mention. They include: the continued sluggish economy; the possible impact of the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Public Land Development Corp.; spikes in burglaries on both sides of the island and their subsequent drop after arrests of 10 individuals police described as a “drug-burglary ring”; Ka‘u wildfires that destroyed agricultural lands and threatened Pahala in June; the county’s hauling of rubbish from East Hawaii to West Hawaii; the County Council’s vote to use eminent domain for beach access at Papaikou Mill; businessman Ken Fujiyama’s sale of Nani Mau Gardens and the bankruptcy of the Naniloa Volcanoes Resort after a mortgage bank foreclosed on a loan; and escapes from Hawaii Community Correctional Center and Hale Nani Correctional Facility.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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