LIHU‘E — Mayor Derek Kawakami is optimistic going into 2022.
Through his administration, he’s putting a lot of energy into the longevity of infrastructure, housing and the people of the county, and committed to working toward these issues in the upcoming year.
He’s impressed by the resilience of local businesses and the Kaua‘i community that has faced yet another difficult year due to the pandemic, and is eager to see more in that direction.
But there’s more he wishes could happen. He wants to get back in front of constituents. He wants more people to get their booster shots.
During the last week of 2021, in an exclusive interview with The Garden Island, Kawakami reflected on the last year, the impacts of the ongoing pandemic and what his priorities are in the new year. Up for reelection in November, Kawakami is running for another four-year term.
Q: How do you see Kaua‘i in terms of the pandemic and in recovery?
A: We are right where the rest of the world is right now. We’re all just dealing with the same virus, the same variant. But I would say that, for me, from my perspective, I don’t think we could ask for a better community to help navigate through challenging times than Kaua‘i.
I am always optimistic, but there’s a reason for my optimism. When you take a look at our vaccination rate, our ability to come together as a community. I think businesses have been seeing a good solid return as far as the economic recovery. There’s much to be thankful for.
At this point, we are not satisfied with the number of people that are qualified to go and get their booster, which to me, is a very key component for people that are fully vaccinated to be able to continue to move forward and weather the COVID-19 storm. One positive aspect is we have so many different partners on board that make boosters widely available. I think more and more people will be adhering to our guidance and getting their booster shots. So, as far as COVID-19, it’s always a high level of concern, but for us, it helps that we’ve been stabilized for so long. It also helps that we have very good communication with our hospital system to get their status as far as where they’re at operationally.
Q: A lot of residents feel as though they’re not hearing enough from our leaders. How do you respond to people who are thinking you’re absent or not around as much as you used to be?
A: It’s hard to be around as much as I’d like to be, but I will admit that I wish I had the ability to clone myself, because there’s just so many things to do and the amount of hours that I have. But as far as communication goes, I don’t think that there is any reason to think that people may be confused (about rules), unless they are paying attention too much to external factors outside of quality. … We’ve been giving updates every single week.
Although there was a shift with the governor, making a clear distinction between the state and the county, nothing has really changed on Kaua‘i for a matter of months now; many months. Basically, we are following the governor’s order, which requires masks. As far as gathering sizes, that may be a place where we have been less-restrictive than the rest of the state, but for those people that want to have larger gatherings, there’s a process that they can go through. We’ve done our best to be able to make that process easily accessible and user-friendly. We have a team of people to help walk people through that process as well.
I don’t blame people for feeling confusion, because there is this big uncertainty that still exists going into the third year of this pandemic. It’s not their fault, but I think, like anything else, if there’s one place government has to do better, it’s communication. That’s why we have a great communications team that continues to evolve.
It may seem that I’m not as present, but nothing in my life has really changed. I’m still much very present out in the community in the activities that I just do as a person. If there was one thing that I wish I could do, is to be more places in the course of the day.
Q: Are there any specific policies you’re looking
to push in 2022?
A: I’ve spent most of my political career in the policymaking branch of government, which is the legislative branch, in the House of Representatives, and then on the County Council, and even on the board of directors for Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative. I will say this: We have so many laws and so many policies that are on the books. Generally speaking, at this point, we leave policymaking to our policymakers across the street at the County Council. We are more focused on operationalizing those policies utilizing the tools that we have in our current county code to be able to achieve our mission.
In fact, our whole approach to housing has been to get away from the policies and focus more on lowering the cost of goods sold, which truly makes housing more within reach for local people. There are just certain things where policies cannot solve our issues.
It takes prioritization and the ability to stay focused. By the nature of things and the rules that we work within, in government, if you don’t have patience, the long vision and the ability to look at the long-term results for the long haul, you can get discouraged and deviate from those priorities.
Like everything else, we continue to throw a lion’s share of resources that are funded through the general excise tax for roads resurfacing and making sure that we can do infrastructure improvements that not only address the condition of our roads but start to improve the circulation of vehicles. Those things don’t get solved overnight, and even if I’m blessed enough to have another term, it’s we’re going to require the focus of every civil administration following us, because that’s what really, that’s what it really takes to address some of these monumental issues.
Q: What have you learned from 2021, and how will you use that going forward?
A: We had a good baseline foundation from the get-go. This administration, we sought to come in, invest heavily into the training of our workforce; we’ve sought to empower our department heads and deputies and really go back to the root of leadership, which is to support your people. If you really want to build people, which is what leadership is, that is what the job of America is, is to build people. You push them beyond what they think he or she can even achieve, and you support them.
From the very beginning, we set out to give them a solid foundation, which goes all the way back to our RISE initiative, which the ‘R’ stands for being very ‘responsive,’ being proactive. ‘I’ stands for ‘integrity,’ having an organization that’s founded in doing the right thing for the right reasons when no one is looking. The ‘S’ is for ‘solidarity:’ we’re all in this canoe together. And,of course, the ‘E’ is the perpetual quest to achieve ‘excellence,’ which is a never-ending process. Every single day we wake up we try to just be a little better than we were the day before.
We just remain committed to those base root foundational principles. We remain focused on all of our unfinished business, which we have a lot of. 2022 is something that I’m very excited about. I’m very optimistic.
Q: Where do you feel like your priorities for Kaua‘i are going into this new year?
A: The priorities have not shifted, and I think that’s key to any sort of administration that deals with delivering essential services that really cannot be disrupted. The foundation of our priorities are in the people that deliver these services, so our top priority is always to make sure that we’re supportive of our people, our department heads, our deputies, and to make sure that everybody on the team is tracking in the right direction as to where we want to end up.
If we’re gonna whittle down to your bread-and-butter priorities, it’s always gonna fall back on infrastructure, housing, economic recovery, having good recreational and open spaces for our keiki and kupuna. A multitude of other things under infrastructure, which entails wastewater systems, solid waste, roads, bridges. Across the nation, we have a slew of aging infrastructure that is in dire need of repair and maintenance, so we’ve been throwing a lion’s share of our attention and resources towards just addressing things that we rely on every single day.
I would say that for 2022, another one of our top priorities is making sure that we can get the Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center over to Hawai‘i Health Systems Corporation. We want to partner with them so that they can operationalize that facility and start to heal some of our children. We’re very fortunate to have a large number of community members (including Grove Farm, HHSC, Senate President Ron Kouchi) that are willing to wrap their arms around this vision. In 2022, we’re gonna see to it that we can make that happen in partnership with our local hospital.
Sabrina Bodon, editor, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview transcript was edited and condensed for clarity.
Source: The Garden Island