Officials square off over survey

LIHU‘E — Members of the Kaua‘i County Council and a top county official went toe-to-toe over the use of the Kaua‘i County seal for a privately-funded survey to determine ways to build more affordable-housing units for residents.

During a meeting of the council’s Community Assistance Committee in the council chambers of the historic County Building, councilmembers JoAnn Yukimura and Mel Rapozo said even though leaders of the Kauai Housing and Traffic Solution Coalition paid those at Honolulu-based Ward Research to conduct the survey last October, Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste’s use of the county seal on the survey smacked of impropriety.

The council members said the survey became county property when envelopes and the survey forms, bearing the county seal, were distributed to the public.

In response, Gary Heu, Baptiste’s administrative assistant, said that, while the survey was accompanied by a message from the mayor, nothing wrong was done, in his opinion.

Heu said the survey remained the property of the private group because it was privately funded, but noted that the survey results are open to members of the council and the public.

County Attorney Lani Nakazawa was asked to give her opinion on the propriety of the mayor’s actions.

When Baptiste sent a message with the survey stating his intentions of developing a comprehensive affordable-housing plan and the convening of a housing task force, the survey “implied a process” that became part of the county’s purview, Yukimura said.

“To me, the survey was primarily done for the County of Kaua‘i, and for the needs of the County of Kaua‘i,” said Yukimura in addressing Heu and Bernard Carvalho, the head of the county offices of community assistance.

Rapozo said the issue at hand is “more than the seal.”

“This is a county survey and, however you cut this up, the mayor convened the housing task force,” Rapozo said.

Heu indicated the council members had their opinions, and that he has his own perspective on the matter.

“I believe the survey and the results of the survey belong to the entity which paid for it, and the county didn’t pay for it, and so I don’t believe it is a county survey,” said Heu, prompting a call from councilwoman Shaylene Carvalho, a former county prosecutor, to ask for an opinion from Nakazawa.

Council chairman Kaipo Asing said the actions on the survey taken by Baptiste showed the mayor ignored the process in moving the survey along, a claim rejected by Heu.

Because of the circumstances surrounding the use of the county seal for the survey, Baptiste should have sought approval from the council to accept the survey as a gift.

Baptiste’s use of the county seal for the survey, Asing said, made him suspicious of the intent of the survey, the cost of which was not revealed.

Yukimura also complained that the makeup of the group of mostly owners of large land holdings and developers is “too narrow” in focus.

Those invited to participate in the coalition included leaders of Grove Farm, which was represented at the council committee meeting by company president Warren Haruki; Alexander & Baldwin; Princeville Resort; Kikiaola Land Co., Ltd.; and Tom McCloskey.

Asing expressed surprise that members of the Robinson family, who own Ni‘ihau and around 50,000 acres in West Kaua‘i, were left off the invitation list. Heu said members of the pioneer family were invited.

Heu acknowledged that, while landowners of large land holdings make up the bulk of the coalition, representatives from government agencies also are members.

The government types include “key” county department heads and representatives from the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the state Department of Transportation, Heu said.

Rapozo said he appreciates efforts by such landowners and developers to pitch in to try to help county leaders find solutions to a critical county problem.

However, he voiced concerns that he didn’t want to see a situation where the landowners, because of their participation in the group, would have the advantage of “fast-tracking” their projects.

Yukimura also said the group’s recommendations “may not be aligned with public needs.”

In order for the needs to be satisfied, more folks have to be included in the group, she said.

The group membership should include residents and officials with self-help housing groups that have the hands-on expertise and experience in building affordable housing, Yukimura said.

The group has met four or five times, and what Yukimura has proposed in the way of filling the group’s ranks with new members could happen, Heu said.

“In my mind, it is an evolving process. There is a lot of enthusiasm to get the process going to find answers,” Heu said.

Heu said developing affordable housing is a concern for just about everyone on Kaua‘i, and for Baptiste, the need to do something came about last summer.

Baptiste began meeting with owners of large land parcels to try to find solutions, and the idea of the survey was born.

So that the council members can begin their participation in the process of helping to build more affordable-housing units, Heu suggested a workshop be held on the matter with members of the council’s Committee of the Whole, an idea that was embraced by council members.

Related to the survey, 15,000 survey forms were distributed on Kaua‘i.

Of that amount, 3,875 people responded, accounting for a response rate of 26 percent, which Rebecca Ward, the head of the company that conducted the survey, said was “very good.”

The survey showed a 50 percent demand rate for market-price homes, a 25 percent demand rate for affordable housing, and a 25 percent demand rate for low-income housing.

Council members thanked Ward, who attended the meeting, for the professionalism shown in the way the survey was done, and said the work was not connected to the county seal controversy.

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