By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer
The Fourth of July may have been a day earlier, but that didn’t stop the fireworks from flying Thursday night as three of Hawaii County’s mayoral candidates faced off in their first major debate of the election season.
Sponsored by the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, the event was not open to the general public, but hundreds of chamber members turned out to hear from the three candidates who were invited to participate: Incumbent Mayor Billy Kenoi, former Mayor Harry Kim, and County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong.
The other four candidates — Share Christie, Daniel H. Cunningham, Anne L. Marsh, and Rand “Baker Tom” Walls — were not invited by the forum’s organizers due to time constraints and less interest in hearing from them by the forum’s sponsors, said chamber President Vaughn Cook.
The evening’s moderator, Sherry Bracken, host of the radio program “Island Issues” on LAVA 105.3 FM and KKOA 107.7 FM, began the questioning by asking each candidate why he wants the job.
Kenoi said he felt he was the best person to help shepherd the county through the rough economic climate, and pointed to his first term as a successful navigation through “the four toughest years during the history of Hawaii County.”
“Yes, it was incredibly challenging, but we showed that we’re all in this together,” he said.
Yagong said he had reached a point on the council where he realized “that’s about all you can do,” without being mayor.
“This is the place you need to be if you truly want to make a difference,” he said. “We need change.”
Kim explained that he had chosen to come out of retirement after serving two terms as mayor because “this is my home. … And I want to be in a position to make this a better place.”
He pointed to a general “discontent” among the island’s populace over how the county solves problems, and said he had been asked by members of the public to run because he can offer a “different style of government.”
In describing their top priorities for the next four years, Kim and Kenoi both placed much of their emphasis on creating job opportunities and closing the “huge gap between those who can and those who cannot make it,” Kim said.
Kenoi pointed to the fact that his administration had not cut “a single dollar” from the county budget for developing tourism, and the addition of Continental/United’s direct flights from California to Hilo Airport as an example of how he has approached creating opportunity on the island.
“Tourism is our No. 1 business,” Kenoi said. “We all benefit from tourism, and its not just the tour businesses. It’s the restaurants, the shopping. … Getting them to our island allows us to employ people.”
Kim said one way he would like to help county residents is by bringing back free bus fares on the County’s Hele-On bus system.
“So many of our people are spending 4, 5, or 6 hours a day on the roads traveling to Kona for jobs. … They could save that money and it would improve lifestyles here at home,” he said.
Meanwhile, Yagong said his top priority wasn’t glamorous, but it was dealing with a big problem that only promises to get bigger: solid waste.
“We’re facing the imminent closure of the Hilo landfill … and we need to look at forming private-public partnerships to deal with it, because we don’t have the resources,” Yagong said.
Yagong and Kenoi have had a very public spat over how the county is dealing with its looming trash nightmare, and Bracken gave the candidates multiple opportunities to weigh in on their philosophies on the subject.
Yagong argued that he would like to see the county pursue siting for a new landfill near the current Hilo landfill. That, he said, would give the county breathing room, as well as stronger footing for negotiations with industries to help provide, and fund, alternative technologies, such as a “waste to energy” plant. He also pushed for more incentives for recycling.
Kim stated that he would also pursue waste to energy solutions, but building any additional landfill facilities would be irresponsible.
“I’m against any future landfills,” he said. “We must keep working to see a better way. A landfill is the most detrimental thing you can do to the environment.”
Kenoi called the landfill quesiton one of the “most complex problems we face.” He said that his administration had considered a great many options, but has been limited by problems involving funding and permitting. Ultimately, he said, the “most viable” option would be to invest in “waste reduction technology.”
Kenoi and Yagong also butted heads during the debate over the county’s current $365 million budget. In his attempts to balance the budget, Kenoi opted to hold off on contributions to the county’s post-retirement fund, known as GASB 45. Yagong has criticized the mayor for that decision, saying that it would hurt the island in the long run.
“If we don’t do it (make payments to the fund) now, it’s stealing from the future,” he said.
Kenoi bristled at that claim.
“That’s just incorrect,” he said. “In June 2012 we had our bond rating … and they rated us with an excellent credit rating. … It’s a good budget. An excellent budget,” he said.
Kim chose to stay out of the argument, saying that he preferred to refrain from “Monday night quarterbacking” the mayor’s decisions without being privy to the same information.
On the issue of alternative energy sources, all the candidates recommended an aggressive investment in renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and geothermal. But, Kim said, especially in light of recent debates over geothermal energy, any decisions would have to be made after exhaustive research.
“With geothermal, we need to do it right,” he said. “Before you pursue it, you need to contact people with expertise outside of Hawaii.
Kenoi pointed to a number of projects that the county had undertaken to install photovoltaics in county buildings, adding that talking about renewable energy is important, but at some point it’s more important to just “step up and do it.”
Meanwhile, Yagong said he would make it a priority to address current roadblocks that stand in the way of adopting renewable energy technologies, such as the Public Utility Commission’s 15 percent saturation rule that requires many people interested in installing photovoltaics to fund a study beforehand, which can cost “tens of thousands of dollars.”
“We need to work with HELCO to find a way to pay for this study. It’s a tremendous deterrent,” he said. “We need to tap into our solar potential.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.