By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The race for the Puna makai council seat is getting heated.
Voters in the County Council’s 4th District will decide whether they want to be represented by a 64-year-old retired businessman turned community benefactor or a 26-year-old Air National Guard veteran who studied accounting at Hawaii Community College.
Fred Blas, the incumbent councilman, was the top vote-getter in the Aug. 11 primary election, but he was unable to avoid a runoff for the race to represent the people of Hawaiian Paradise Park, Hawaiian Beaches, Hawaiian Shores, Leilani Estates, Nanawale Estates, Opihikao, Pohoiki, Kapoho and part of Pahoa. Blas will face Greggor Ilagan, who narrowly edged James Weatherford for the runoff.
Ilagan lacks political experience, but that hasn’t stopped Puna voters in the past. For Blas, his support of Mayor Billy Kenoi’s administration on geothermal issues may be a liability in a district that only gave 33.7 percent of the vote to Kenoi.
Ilagan carried Hawaiian Paradise Park, while Blas won support in the communities around Pahoa.
In interviews, Blas enjoys talking about all the things that need to be done in Puna.
On the County Council, he’s been a sphinx, keeping quiet throughout the lengthy discussions on almost all bills. During a recent council meeting, Chairman Dominic Yagong gave Blas a chance to comment on a resolution that Blas had introduced regarding the county’s acceptance of a Waikoloa subdivision and improvements.
“Let’s just vote,” Blas said.
Ilagan and his supporters say Blas’ absence of discussion on the issues before the council is not good.
“What they (voters) note is that Fred, of course he does a lot of community service for the community,” Ilagan said. “When they see him at the council meeting, he doesn’t even talk. He doesn’t even voice the concerns of the people.”
Blas, informed of the criticism, fired back.
“I do my homework. I do my research,” he said. “Why do I have to talk and talk” like other members of the council, and “go on and on and on?” He wants to get on to the vote, and move on to the next topic, he said.
Ilagan produced a letter, sent by Blas’ office on Feb. 1 to a state Senate committee, in support of five geothermal bills. Ilagan said this was proof that Blas believed “everybody in District 4 supports geothermal,” despite statements by numerous people to the contrary.
“I have had several meetings with community members, industry representatives and potential geothermal resource developers, and the sentiment is always the same,” the letter says. “We need to increase geothermal and other alternative energy production on the Big Island because the resources are readily available here, and we need to move away from the traditional reliance on fossil fuel. I am also in favor of geothermal development projects on public trust lands, and even on reserved lands.”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to see it,” Blas said when asked about the letter. Blas said he supports geothermal development in West Hawaii as long as it’s properly permitted and follows health and safety regulations. A council aide said she wasn’t sure whether Blas had read the five bills referenced in the letter. The letter was sent because someone had requested support of the bills, and Blas agreed, the aide said. All five bills were introduced by Sen. Malama Solomon.
Blas believes that his showing in the primary election was due to him not campaigning as much as he could have, and what he calls the geothermal issue. Blas was one of four council members who broke with the majority on the council to uphold Kenoi’s vetoes of two geothermal bills.
Blas was regarded as a semi-swing vote at the start of the term, but today he fully supports the Kenoi administration. Working together, he said, is the only way to get things done. Blas is grateful for the support of the department heads in getting parks built and funded, rezonings completed, and jobs for the people of the district.
“When you work together with the mayor, the administration, positively, not negatively, you get things done,” Blas said. “We’re underserved, and the mayor realizes that we’re underserved, and he lived down there. I can say nothing negative about the administration and the mayor.”
Blas is trying to get the word out about his accomplishments both on the council and in the community. From building bus shelters to supervising people sentenced for community service, funding for a Pahoa Park, funding youth athletics and pushing for new businesses to come to town, Blas hasn’t been accused of being lazy.
“If I’m not in the office, talking to the people, talking to the administration, I’m out on the road” with the people sentenced to community service for traffic violations, Blas said, a job that doesn’t involve county money.
“I’m always a leader, not a follower,” Blas said.
Blas was born in Guam but made a name for himself in Southern California, where he was a Sears automotive manager and a tire dealer. He became a permanent Big Island resident in 1998, living in Hilo for five years and moving to Puna in 2003.
Ilagan was born in the Philippines and moved to Hawaii when he was 7. A 2004 graduate of Waiakea High, he served six years in the Air National Guard in Hilo and Toledo, Ohio, and then returned to Hilo to study accounting. He’s out of school this term, working full time on his publicly funded campaign to be the youngest person elected to the County Council, by his count.
The outcome of the primary vote was a pleasant surprise to Ilagan who, unlike Blas or James Weatherford, had not run for the County Council in 2010.
“The fact that (the vote was) 60 to 70 percent against the incumbent shows that he (Blas) doesn’t have the support that he used to have,” Ilagan said. “We’re getting to the supporters that we haven’t got to.”
He’s trying to reach out to the people who sat out the primaries but are registering for the general election. Ilagan spoke with Weatherford, whom he said is not making an endorsement.
Ilagan said he has heard from a lot of people who say they’re not voting for Blas. “They don’t like Fred and they’re voting for me.”
He pledges to be a full-time council member and wants to work to get the services where they are needed.
“I notice that one person wants a certain thing, and that this (other) person provides that good, and all I need to do is bring them together,” Ilagan said, explaining how his office could help the community in his “hands-on” way.
Unlike Blas, Ilagan doesn’t maintain any ties to Kenoi — or Kim, for that matter. Ilagan’s mother is a Republican, his father is a Democrat, and the candidate himself remains an independent. Blas registered as a Democrat on May 31.
“I’m not going to say I’m totally for whatever Billy says,” Ilagan said. “Likewise with Kim … I’m just staying out of the mayor’s race.”
Ilagan would consider a special assessment that could fund road improvements in Hawaiian Paradise Park, and he’d like to see safety improvements for the boaters and swimmers at Pohoiki Bay.
Blas and Ilagan disagree about many things. Ilagan is resuming his practice of signwaving with friends at the Highway 130 bottleneck south of Keaau; Blas says that’s a dangerous intersection to distract drivers.
Ilagan credits his showing in the race to the publicly financed campaign pilot program for the Hawaii County Council. He qualified for $16,320 in the primary election and $5,103 in the general election for a total of $21,423.
Blas does not take money from the county for mileage or personal expenses. He has raised a little more than $6,000. About half of that is from his own account and half is from small donors. He doesn’t believe in publicly funded campaigns and groused about how Ilagan was at the Maku‘u Farmers Market last Sunday, handing out Braddah Pops on the taxpayers’ dime.
One thing they do agree on, however: J Yoshimoto would make a good chairman of the council.
Email Peter Sur at firstname.lastname@example.org.