Kusaka’s legacy one of caring, and bringing people together

LIHU’E – Don’t expect Mayor Maryanne Kusaka to fade away after she hands off the mayor’s office on Monday, Dec. 2.

Though she admitted she’s “not looking for a steady job,” in an exclusive interview she said if her strength and abilities permit it, she will continue to share her favorite island’s aloha with the world.

And there is no shortage of high-power officials, public and private, elected and seeking election, who are interested in having Kusaka and her connections around after her term ends.

People including former Maui Mayor Linda Lingle, a Republican candidate for governor, have said they don’t want to lose Kusaka’s relationships with important people in Japan and on the Mainland, and with movers and shakers in the visitor industry, Kusaka said.

“We have created a lot of partnerships, and building relationships is important,” Kusaka said. If she can represent and help Kaua’i and Hawai’i in tourism promotion, for example, she will, she added.

“If I have the strength and ability to share aloha, I will,” said Kusaka, who turns 67 on Wednesday, Sept. 11.

Entering the twilight of her eight years as mayor, and having the distinction of being the first mayor to serve the duration under a four-year-term, two-consecutive-term-limit county law, Kusaka recently reflected on her years in office.

There is some unfinished business, and lots of accomplishments, she said as she talked about criticisms that come with the office, making county government more user-friendly and, among other things, her legacy of aloha.

“I leave a legacy of caring, for the environment, for children, for public safety,” she said.

“I really feel that our strength is bringing people together for the benefit of the island, bringing communities together to care for each other,” Kusaka said.

She is proud of her relationships with the Kaua’i Chamber of Commerce, the County Council, the ecumenical community, youth groups and the travel trade.

“I work so well with the visitor industry,” she said.

Her building of partnerships with various individuals and groups has helped the community to take ownership of the island, and not depend on federal and state funding to get things done, she continued.

It is of utmost importance that the people of Kaua’i use their hearts and energies to take care of the island, something that provides positive role modeling for young Kauaians, she said.

“And if we don’t help, physically, we’ll lose it, our community.”

She points with pride to the ongoing Ho’olokahi program, which encourages community involvement in beautification projects.

It started out as an idea to encourage communities to clean up their local parks, and has expanded to include the Lihu’e gateway beautification project at the intersection of Ahukini Road and Kapule Highway near the airport, and many other volunteer projects.

“And from all of that comes pride” in community, something that can teach children a needed lessen about being proud of, and caring for, the island’s environment, she said.

Kusaka further hopes to be remembered for her work in providing beach access, including backing a vision which began with an idea for an expanded Lydgate Park to include soccer fields, camping areas, playgrounds and walking, biking and jogging paths around and through it, to encompass a beach path from Kalapaki Bay to Anahola.

“We will have rave reviews” about that path when it finally becomes reality, she said. And, it will help the economy of Kapa’a, as small businesses find ways to offer services like bike rentals to people using the path.

Even before the former Amfac sugar lands above Kealia were purchased, the prospective owners came to Kusaka asking what they might be able to provide to the county and community.

Her rapid response: “shoreline areas and beach access.”

She said she has heard she is being investigated by some agency for her alleged acceptance of a gift of one of the lots at Kealia Kai subdivision from the developer, but laughed it off, saying she couldn’t even afford the property tax on one of those luxury lots.

Kusaka has been successful, she said, in moving the Kealia bike path portion of that Kalapaki-Anahola shoreline route to the top of the state Department of Transportation’s priority list for Kaua’i projects.

The Mayor is also proud of a family self-sufficiency program that helped adults get off of welfare and find meaningful employment.

Another program in the County Housing Agency teaches people how to manage money, get job training, and learn other skills allowing them to save money for a down payment on a home.

Some of the participants in the five-year plan to save money were able to buy homes in just two years.

Of administration goals first put to paper in 1993, one visible failure, she pointed out, was the inability to get the Coco Palms Resort reopened after Hurricane ‘Iniki in 1992, even though those rebuilding decisions were largely out of her hands.

Another disappointment, and she blames herself for not pushing the issue enough, was her administration’s failure to complete the consolidation of county offices into the former Lihue Shopping Center complex.

The former Gem store now owned by the county remains vacant, though Kusaka hopes plans for transforming the square footage into county office space can be completed soon, and the project put out to bid before she leaves office in December, she said.

The County Council wouldn’t give the funding for the consolidation when she first requested it, she said.

Kusaka walked the walk as well as talked the talk, about not depending on state and federal funding when, after several attempts to secure state funding for the building of a new police station failed, she floated a bond to raise funds to build the new facility.

It is still set to open on Friday, Oct. 25, with an extension of Ka’ana Street to serve as the main entrance road to the facility, off Kapule Highway, to open by December, she said.

That project is a partnership with the state Judiciary, which is planning to construct a new courthouse building adjacent to the police/Civil Defense/prosecuting attorney building behind the Kauai Veterans Center near Vidinha Stadium. Also nearby is the County Transportation Agency’s new building and baseyard.

Criticisms of her and some of her administration’s moves over the past eight years, including alleged cozy relationships with developers, the flap over her new-car lease, the amount of time spent traveling abroad to promote tourism to the island, allegations she deliberately delayed closed-captioned broadcast of certain County Council meetings dealing with the proposed sale of Kauai Electric to Kaua’i Island Utility Co-op, and others, is “disturbing,” she said, because the noise tends to drown out her years of good deeds and accomplishments.

“It’s the end product that counts,” she said, adding that the criticism hurts her family more than it hurts her. She was warned that politics can be cruel, and to expect criticism.

As a teacher, her goal was making correct decisions for the good of the students. She feels as mayor she has been successful getting people to do things by being nice. “You get more flies with honey than vinegar.

“We’ve worked hard,” she continued, stressing that it takes a team united by a common vision to accomplish goals.

When she first took office, she saw the end of the continued exodus of appointed department heads as a key goal. Having continuity in appointed county leadership has been a saving grace of her administration, and allowed it to accomplish much, she said.

Her department heads “have been able to work with me, and I with them.”

Kusaka also feels she helped instill a more professional attitude among county employees, with county performance including efficient and friendly services being among her written second-term goals.

That insight struck her when she first took office, too, and she voiced concerns about how front-line county employees dressed (shorts, jeans and T-shirts used to be commonplace, she said), how welcoming (or not) county offices were, and how office politics influenced service to the public, among other matters.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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