Cochran and Balinbin vie for West Maui’s council seat
WEST MAUI – Lahaina incumbent Elle Cochran, 51, faces first-time candidate Ernest (Kanamu) Balinbin, 48, in the upcoming nonpartisan election for the West Maui County Council seat. While council candidates have to live in a designated geographic region, all Maui voters can vote in this race.
Cochran, first elected in 2010, is completing her third two-year term. She currently chairs the council’s Infrastructure & Environmental Management Committee and is vice chair of its Economic Development, Energy, Agriculture and Recreation Committee. She has been closely associated with the anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) movement and is one of two incumbent council candidates endorsed by the ad hoc Ohana Coalition. She and her husband, Wayne, own Maui Surfboards, one of the island’s oldest surfing shops.
Challenger Balinbin, the father of four, is employed in food service at Maui Preparatory Academy. He is a longtime Napili resident and a 1968 Lahainaluna High School graduate. His wife, Richelle, is listed as his campaign’s chair and treasurer.
A frequent community volunteer, especially where food is concerned, he is proud of the many generations of his Hawaiian-Filipino family who have lived on the West Side. “There are lots of us,” he said, “we’re a well-known family over here.” He spoke fondly of the family’s former restaurant the old Coconut Grove that had played host to political hopefuls of an earlier era. Balinbin is endorsed by the ILWU, Maui Chamber of Commerce and Hawaii AFL-CIO.
While the 2014 race for the West Maui seat saw large amounts of money spent in an attempt to wrest the seat away from Cochran, the financial side of this year’s contest is much more modest. Cochran herself is deeply in the hole. Her most recent financial report for the period July 30 to Aug. 13, 2016 filed with the state Campaign Spending Commission showed her with a deficit of $58,674 and total receipts for that period of $2,850. (Because there were only two candidates for this seat, Balinbin did not need to run in the primary and will not be required to file a financial report until Oct. 31.)
The challenger said he expects to spend less than $5,000. He has no website or printed handout and has relied mostly on personal appearances at public forums and going door to door to get his message out. His largest single expense to date has been $1,600 to pay for an informational mailer. As for his style: “I am not a sign holder; I like face-to-face. I like to talk to people personally.”
“My candidacy is not a me against her thing,” Balinbin said. “I was pleasantly surprised,” he added, “when I announced, I was I flooded with offers of help.” He talked about growing up on the West Side and said his motives for running are geared toward the future. “I have four kids,” he said. “I hope they can have what we had – beaches, fishing, clean water and a close, tight-knit community.”
As for incumbent Cochran, who has had her differences with the administration and other members of the council, “I like my job,” she said. “It comes with challenges. It allows me to do good things for this community.” In her opinion, “Differences of opinions and perspectives are a good thing. We’re not looking for just cookie cutters.” She said she has been heartened by the growing number of people wanting to get involved with government.
Cochran named affordable housing as one of her top priorities. She said she had been recently involved with the council’s Temporary Investigative Group (TIG) on housing. Among key TIG recommendations are to allow the building of accessory dwellings on smaller lots and to devise a portfolio of pre-approved plans that would speed the permitting process. She also mentioned the development of several projects in Kahoma that will include affordable housing units in cooperation with private developers, Na Hale O Maui and Habitat for Humanity.
Cochran voiced her opposition to expanding seawalls, hardening the coastline, and said she favored moving the coastal highway, which has been subject to erosion and surges, further inland. Again she noted that “highly visible community participation” was the primary reason that some of the controversial seawall proposals were either put on hold or revised. She spoke favorably of the federally mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization, initiated earlier this year, that she said for the first time brings all the players to the table to speak directly to each other about issues affecting Maui’s future.
Cochran also cited her interest in making better use of Maui’s R-1 water, that is wastewater that has been treated to a high level of purity and can be recycled for a variety of purposes. She also emphasized that substantial funds have been obtained for upgrades to West Maui waste and water facilities.
Speaking about shoreline access, she acknowledged that many public access points have been blocked or not kept up, but she noted that there is renewed interest in keeping these paths open. “When hotels and condos come in asking the council for emergency permits, before they get final approval, they must agree to open up access.” She mentioned Makani Sands, Hololani and Kahana Sunset as accommodations that had already opened up or had agreed to create shoreline access.
Cochran said she is interested in the Kahoma Stream Flood Control project completed in 1990 and hopes to continue to investigate the need for modification and upgrades to the project.
Some of Balinbin’s concerns were similar. He also named affordable housing as a top priority. He called on West Side employers to make a bigger investment in their employees, including the development of worker housing. “Permitting needs to be revamped. Right now, the requests all go into one basket (whether it’s an ohana or a resort development). I’d like to see it revised to be more friendly to construction and contractors and the public in general,” he explained.
Another issue of interest to him is post-HC&S agriculture. He thinks that the former sugar plantation’s agricultural plans may be more about their desire to retain control of water resources than to actually continue any large-scale farming on Maui. He pointed out that when “Pioneer (Mill) and AMFAC (pulled out of sugar in West Maui), lots of things were talked about that never happened. The rest of Maui should learn from our experience.”
The candidate recalled that in years gone by, every plantation camp had “a community garden that fed us all… Being in the food and catering business all my life, the buzz now is ‘agriculture.’ But in this case, I’d be pushing for more hi-tech type ag projects.” He wants to explore more creative uses of ag land, such as “warehouses where you farm up instead of out.” He called these ventures “farms that are more productive and use less water.”
He also spoke of specific projects promised but not delivered, including a West Side community center, the difficulty in keeping shoreline access open and the need to have a reliable inventory of what’s been authorized and what’s actually been delivered.
Balinbin didn’t care to speculate about his chances of winning against a strong incumbent, but he did say, “If I don’t win, I’m expecting to run again.”