HAENA — It was a political debate like no other.
At about 5:30 Wednesday afternoon, a column of five pickups and one small blue sedan slipped unobtrusively into the middle of the scheduled Kuhio Highway convoy from Hanalei to Wainiha and headed west with the long line of vehicles.
A hint as to the purpose of the special column came a few minutes before, when County Councilmember Derek Kawakami — running for mayor — started working the waiting convoy. He strode with purpose from vehicle to vehicle, shaking hands, slapping backs, talking story.
The six additional vehicles carried both mayoral candidates — Kawakami and County Council Chair Mel Rapozo — and nine of the 14 candidates for County Council to the Opakapaka Grill and Bar at Hanalei Colony Resort in Haena, where they would participate in an extraordinarily North Shore-centric candidate debate.
The forum was sponsored by the Hanalei-to-Haena Community Association.
The area west of Hanalei remains closed to non-residents because of flood damage from the disastrous mid-April storm, and this hyperlocal debate would be the only opportunity during the campaign for the candidates as a group to interact with the storm-impacted voters.
Opakapaka has become the de facto seat of the small community of an estimated 350 to 400 people who remain in the area despite the hardships of living there. From the small cross-section of apparent regulars Wednesday, it was clear that locals heavily rely on Opakapaka as a meeting place.
In a large seating area that had been cleared out for the debate, about 40 people gathered to hear candidates respond to questions. The number may seem low, but it represented about 10 percent of the population.
They focused on issues like the conditions on the highway, illegal transient vacation rentals, how the county will assure service by any new shuttle service connecting Princeville to Kee Beach, the wave of tourists that local people fear will re-invade once the road reopens and permanent limitation of vehicle access to the area to residents only.
TVR issues have historically been a hot issue in the Wainiha-Haena-Ke‘e area because, while TVRs account for one in eight homes islandwide, one of every two houses in the corridor west of Hanalei is a vacation rental, according to the community association.
In the mysterious tradition of Kauai candidate forums, all questions were posed by a single moderator and didn’t involve any direct interaction between the audience and candidates. Applause was discouraged.
County Council candidates present included: Juno Apalla, Arthur Brun, Mason Chock, Felicia Cowden, Luke Evslin, Arryl Kaneshiro, Kipukai Kualii, Adam Roversi and Milo Spindt. Absent were Kanoe Ahuna, Billy DeCosta, Shaylene Iseri, Ross Kagawa and Norma Doctor Sparks.
Kawakami and Rapozo determined who would speak first by playing the rock-paper-scissors game, then transitioned to what seemed at times almost like an instructional lecture. Patiently, they explained that the county can’t simply order all TVRs to go out of business nor can the county repair the state highway.
Rapozo was characteristically blunt. “When it comes to nonconforming uses (by TVRs), there’s not a lot we can do about that,” he said.
Both candidates said they supported legislation to lift the ability to easily transfer entitlements to operate a TVR when a property is sold.
“Even if it’s inherited,” said Kawakami.
He said it’s important to remember the overwhelming presence of TVRs from Hanalei to the end of the road.
“Out here, it’s one house in two,” Kawakami said.
Rapozo was critical of existing vacation rental enforcement efforts.
“They’re not doing enough,” he said of county Planning Department TVR enforcement personnel. “Old-fashioned, backyard police work — that’s what we need.”
Reprising a familiar campaign theme, Kawakami urged residents to recognize that solutions to the dilemmas of the North Shore all necessitate better public-private partnership approaches.
“It’s got to be the entire community’s effort,” he said of steps to address the issues that surfaced in the debate questions.
“We have to give the community back to the residents,” Rapozo said. He said that if he’s elected, he would end waivers of shoreline setback requirements.
“Absolutely no waivers,” he vowed.
Kawakami urged residents to do more to understand the complexities of climate change and how it may affect islands like Kauai differently depending on any exact location.
“Because we’re a coastal community, we’re gonna feel climate change,” he said.
The debate among council candidates reflected almost no major disagreements. Exceptions were when Spindt said the North Shore has no need for additional affordable housing.
Cowden, who is identified heavily with the North Shore community in which she lives, reminded the audience that relieving traffic and congestion in Hanalei may cause it to increase in places like Kokee State Park and elsewhere on the Westside. She urged sensitivity to unforeseen consequences that may come from reducing congestion in one area, but increasing it elsewhere.
The Opakapaka bar continued serving throughout the debate, and as the council candidates kept speaking the audience dwindled. It seemed clear people found little separating them. Eventually, the debate ended and the remaining audience was encouraged to move into the bar so the dining room, in which the debate occurred, could be prepared for the next day’s service.
Then at exactly 8:45, the candidates, the column vehicle drivers and others walked out into the parking lot, climbed into cars and even pickup truck beds and turned left out of the driveway to catch the 9 p.m. convoy back to Hanalei.
Allan Parachini is a former public relations executive and Kilauea resident who writes periodically for The Garden Island.