Residents voice concerns during meeting with area lawmakers
LAHAINA – The meeting with state legislators Sen. Roz Baker and Rep. Angus McKelvey last week Saturday (Jan. 16) at the West Maui Senior Center was informative, at best, if not confusing, at least.
Topics were popping up and down like targets at a county fair shooting booth. In a way, it was like attending an ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) convention, with questions hanging, not fully answered, before new ones were asked.
It was hectic.
To be fair, West Maui lawmakers Baker and McKelvey fielded the hits as best as they could; there were only a few errors on the scorecard at the end of the day.
The Lahaina News learned that Opening Day for the 2016 State Legislature was on Wednesday, Jan. 20. Bill introduction officially began at that time.
The subject at the top of the hot topic list was the public-private transfer of several Maui health care facilities from the state to Kaiser Permanente on Thursday, Jan. 14. As per the agreement terms, Kaiser will take over three financially troubled institutions on July 1.
Baker was pointed in her summary of the situation: “It transforms what happens here on Maui. It’s Maui Memorial Medical Center, it’s Kula Hospital and it’s Lanai Community Hospital. All of those entities are going to have access to what Kaiser has here. Kaiser is committed to recruiting new doctors and other health professionals. They have made it very clear; and, I want to underscore this, so that nobody leaves with any misperception.
“This is not a Kaiser Permanente hospital; it is a Maui community hospital. It will be governed by a board of nine people, five of whom will be Maui residents; so that Maui people have the majority. Anybody, ANYBODY,” Baker pledged, “visitor, resident – no matter what your status with your health care provider in terms of your insurance – whether you are a Kaiser member, a non-Kaiser member, somebody that has Quest, somebody that does not have insurance; you have a right to be treated, and you will be treated with the greatest of respect and care as they would treat anyone.”
With the Alexander & Baldwin announcement in a press release on Jan. 6 “that it is transitioning out of farming sugar and instead pursue a diversified agricultural model for its 36,000-acre Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) plantation Maui,” there were plenty of questions and concerns raised by Lahaina constituents.
Rightly so, as West Siders have experienced the multiple, sometimes negative, outcomes of the closing of Pioneer Mill in 1999.
One forthright constituent asked, “Do they have the right to sell the land to Monsanto?”
McKelvey answered, “I haven’t heard that. In fact, the same day HC&S was closed, Monsanto announced they were also reducing their presence quite substantially in Hawaii.”
Some were worried that the ag lands would be scooped up by developers.
“There would be no way,” McKelvey assured, “that that 36,000 acres that HC&S has could be rezoned like the way Launiupoko was rezoned.”
“Because they committed so much of their acreage in Important Ag Lands (IAL), they’re constrained in what they can do,” he explained.
The circumstances, Baker observed, present many challenges, but options are available.
“The real question is, if HC&S wanted to sell their lands, they could. That is not in their interest; and the other thing, this may not be the end of sugar, per se there may be some lands that would stay in sugar as a boutique crop” to feed the island rum and the vodka industries, for example, she said.
Water is a major stumbling block, both legislators agreed, but Baker took the lead on this concern.
“The Central Valley is dry. There’s a little bit of well water, but none of those wells have been dug; and it’s very expensive water.
“So if we’re serious about agriculture,” Baker continued, “we’re going to have to make sure that some of that water that’s being transported from East Maui (now) is allowed to stay for agricultural production. That may be one of the biggest challenges, because there are some lawsuits out there, and it’s a balance. Some of it’s been returned to the streams, and that’s a good thing; but we also need to make sure that we have some available for continued agriculture if that looks like that’s the viable option.”
“There are some folks,” Baker noted, “who want to see the water go only into the stream, which would go right to the ocean.”
“I will tell you that if there is no more water that’s available for agriculture in that central area, it won’t happen. It will not happen; it will look exactly like Lahaina, and then the guys in Kihei are really going to be upset, because it is going to be dusty as hell,” she warned.
“It’s problematic to think that diversified agriculture is going to pick up the slack for HC&S,” Baker advised. “It’s just not going to happen. So if that’s our expectation, we’re going to be disappointed. I think, however, that there are a variety of things that can be done that can help to keep the place green.
“I personally think that we’re gonna see a patch work of different kinds of things happening,” she added.
Baker and McKelvey added to the list of alternatives like a vertical dairy, grass for grass-fed beef and energy crops for biodiesel.
But Baker is not in favor of the production of industrial hemp.
“Even though everybody loves hemp, and they think that’s the savior for the world, I don’t think it is,” she said point blank.
A significant concern is for the number of workers that have been displaced by the shutdown, and that is being addressed as a matter of priority.
“The Mayor’s Office is picking up three or four people to do administrative work. It’s the field workers, the frontline workers, that will suffer the most,” Baker said.
“There are retraining funds available through the Displaced Workers Act.”
As usual, at these West Side “talk story” sessions with our state representatives, the topic of the Lahaina Bypass was broached.
McKelvey confirmed that after Phase 1B-2 heading south to Olowalu is completed, the long-awaited traffic congestion reliever will head north.
“We’re going north (to the Honokowai intersection). We’ve been counting traffic, and the major congestion chokehold has migrated to the north side, because of the fact you have all of the Kaanapali and Kapalua activity,” he said.
The political hot potato of the talk story session was fireworks!
Both lawmakers tossed responsibility to the county.
“Fireworks are already illegal,” Baker said matter-of-fact. “We just need the enforcement” from the county.
“Make noise,” McKelvey advised, “to (West Side Councilwoman) Elle (Cochran) and the mayor.”
“Actually my colleague, Senator Will Espero,” Baker noted, “has introduced some legislation which I have signed as a co-introducer that would take a look at greater inspections at the harbors for cargo coming in, so that we stop them so they never get distributed.”
Baker and McKelvey were attentive to the mix of questions pitched.
Information was also available at the meeting to help the community follow legislative activities.
Log on to www.capitol.hawaii.gov and follow measures as they track their way through the legislative process. Constituents can also submit testimony, register to receive hearing notifications and view legislative video streams at that same all-purpose site.
Sen. Baker is the chair of the Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee. She can be reached toll-free at 948-2400, extension 66070, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rep. McKelvey chairs the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee. He can be reached by telephone toll-free at 984-2400, extension 66160, or by e-mail at repmckelvey @capitol.hawaii.gov.
The 2016 legislature adjourns on May 5.