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Tamara Paltin: ‘Life is about balance’

By Staff | Jul 9, 2015

County Ocean Safety Officer Tamara Paltin is one of a new breed of West Maui activists making waves on the beach and in the public arena.

WEST MAUI – Last year, Tamara Paltin, 37, a longtime resident of West Maui and veteran Maui County ocean safety officer, made her first try for public office when she ran for Maui mayor against incumbent Alan Arakawa.

She didn’t win the two-way nonpartisan general election, but it was an impressive debut. She received nearly 40 percent of the 48,000 votes cast.

After the election, Arakawa went back to being mayor and Paltin went back to her lifeguard job at D.T. Fleming Beach near Kapalua, where she and other water safety officers are responsible for a wide stretch of coastline that runs from Kahakuloa to Pohaku Park, more popularly known as “S Turns.”

Lifeguards like Paltin and others who staff Maui beaches are often involved in rescue activities and act as emergency first-responders. It’s a job with dangerous moments, and they often find themselves in life or death situations. The last decade has seen a big increase in ocean uses and accidents, and serious situations can and do come up.

Paltin moved to Maui from Hawaii Island and started working with the County of Maui on Nov. 16, 2001, “before ocean safety officers were even part of the 911 emergency system; before stand up paddling was a common activity that required frequent rescue by jet ski,” she noted.

Tamara Paltin (center) is shown here with her family at Olowalu: from left, husband George Vierra, Kalehua Paltin-Vierra, Nahiku Paltin-Vierra and Nonie Vierra. The family lives in Napili. PHOTO BY J. ANTHONY MARTINEZ OF LUMIERE.

Looking back, she recalled, “The past 14 years have really flown by. I am amazed it’s been so long. Back in those days, we operated much smaller, lighter weight and slower jet skis that didn’t always start or run well. I’ve helped to bring a victim back to life and I’ve been unsuccessful at bringing a victim back to life. I’ve seen all types of marine life up close and personal.

“Once my partner and I were called (by jet ski) to check on a whale that wasn’t moving. We suspected she might have been nursing, and when we tried to move around to the other side of the whale to look and see, the whale (protecting her keiki) flipped her tail one time and launched straight up in the air less than 25 yards away from us. She was so close, the water running down her back sounded like a waterfall.”

What she loves about the job is “being able to help people, having to adapt to nature’s weather conditions and being able to experience the range of what nature has to offer. I like being able to watch the water, sand and clouds move and have time to think.”

On the job, she is also the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) union steward for Unit 14, representing a group of about 60 ocean safety workers. It’s a department that is in transition between Parks and the Fire Department.

Because of ongoing active negotiations related to the transfer and other internal contract matters, Paltin declined to comment on issues, but she did say that one of the items on the table is equity and hazard pay for rescue work.

“Lifeguards at the beach make slightly more than pool guards, but there is no differential for hazardous conditions. Maui County is the only county in Hawaii where there is no supplemental agreement to compensate rescue craft (jet ski) operators,” she said.

Heading the Parks Department is Paltin’s new boss, Ka’ala Buenconsejo, who was also a first-time candidate from the West Side. He also lost his maiden race against incumbent County Councilwoman Elle Cochran in one of the most contentious contests in recent memory.

He, too, aimed high, and after the election put in his resume and was recently appointed to head the Parks Department. In one jump, Buenconsejo rose from a public relations representative heading marketing for a local luau and group of Maui restaurants to his present position supervising more than 400 county workers employed either directly or indirectly by Parks and Recreation.

Asked to comment on the department’s new boss, Paltin responded, “Parks and Recreation has been in such a slump for so long, anything and anyone is an improvement.

She added, “I haven’t had much direct interaction with Buenconsejo. It is a difficult position because of the back and forth of directors throughout the various administrations; morale has been pretty low.”

Before running for public office, Paltin was best known for her involvement with the volunteer effort to preserve Honolua Bay and keep it in open space. That effort began in the winter of 2006-07 and has been ongoing until the present. Paltin has been the president and executive director of the Save Honolua Coalition (www.savehonolua.org/) for the last six years.

Discussing Honolua, she recalled, “Elle Cochran provided the spark that lit our community on fire against Maui Land & Pine’s proposal to develop a golf course and luxury homes overlooking Honolua Bay.

“I had just moved to Kahana, oceanfront off Lower Honoapiilani Road, living in an old plantation home being rented out by the Aluli ohana. Pia Aluli was my neighbor on the property, and we often discussed Honolua and Hawaiian issues.

“I am not Hawaiian, but I was raised in Hawaii and this is the only home that I know. I don’t have anywhere to ‘go back to.’ So I am committed to making Hawaii and Maui a better place with respect to the Hawaiian culture, because I believe traditional Hawaiian stewardship and sustainability are the role models that we should strive for.”

In 2013-14, due to the effort of the coalition and its many supporters, the state purchased the land that is also known as Lipoa Point.

She is pleased about the progress but thinks there is still more that needs to be done: “Life is about balance, and traditional Hawaiian methods worked on maintaining that balance. Our challenge now is to work on a sustainable, community-based management plan for the area that has been saved from development but not from the impacts of extreme unmanaged human usage.”

Asked about her motivation for seeking public office and where she sees her future, she replied: “I am keeping an open mind about my political future, but I am committed to community-based and community-driven solutions and want to remain true to my grassroots beginnings.

“I have been a county employee under four separate administrations in Maui and a few in Hawaii, and I feel that the mayor-council set-up is inefficient and prone to cronyism,” Paltin continued.

“I still believe we need more accountability, continuity and transparency, and I think that can be better achieved with the council-professional manager set-up, which is an alternative method of governance that many counties across the nation have embraced.

“The way it now, I believe the most important aspect of the (mayor’s) job is to put the right people in the right places, from boards and commissions to community plan committees and directors/deputy directors of various departments.

“I learned a lot about myself in the process of running for mayor. I know I still have a lot to work on. I am open to running for elected office again.”

She also feels there are benefits to being based in West Maui: “The West Side is different; the west is more united than other parts of the island, and the West Side is an economic engine and a visitor attraction. I think because the West Side is separated from the rest of the island by the Pali, we often feel neglected by county government despite being a major economic driver through tourism. Our community is still very tight – anywhere you go in West Maui, you are likely to run into an old friend, and so we support each other. Because we are somewhat isolated, we must be more resilient and self-reliant, which are also characteristics of good leaders.”

In her view, one of the encouraging aspects of the mayor’s race was “experiencing such positive feedback from my constituency. I feel that I am grounded enough to connect with a wide array of folks. Even though we may not always agree, I will do my best to represent the everyday people who live here and try to improve all of our qualities of life while respecting our unique environment and Hawaiian culture,” Paltin concluded.