Like most challengers for Kaua‘i County Council, Monroe Richman is full of promises of honesty, transparency and accountability. Unlike most, however, Richman’s resume includes managing two half-billion-dollar budgets.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Richman oversaw a $500 million police and fire pension as a commissioner in Los Angeles. He was also an elected member of the Los Angeles Community College District — the largest community college district in the country — for 16 years. That budget topped out $500 million as well.
As a result, Richman, who has lived on Kaua‘i for 20 years, feels very comfortable in his own political skin.
““If one of my colleagues is reticent about speaking the truth, I’ll ask them why,” he said. “I have a very comfortable view of my accountability. I’m there to serve the people.”
Like his fellow challengers, Richman has taken his turn hammering at the thorn in the current council’s side.
“Open government is the cleanest government,” he said, adding that the sitting council is on track for three times the amount of closed-door executive sessions as the previous council.
And the easiest way to enforce transparent government is accountability.
“A well-intentioned individual should request accountability — a management audit,” Richman said. “These are established techniques.”
Despite that, the Navy veteran and former family practitioner’s pet project — his one burning desire that he needs to see changed if elected to the council — lies elsewhere.
“The single issue closest to my heart is the Ohana Property Tax measure,” Richman said. “I was one of the sponsors.”
Richman says the citizens’ support of the Ohana Amendment, which the council has vigorously opposed, shows that the current council has lost touch.
“Our council has ignored citizen input,” he said. “It’s a characteristic of the council. I think the fact that 60 percent of the voters voted for (the Ohana Amendment) is a compelling argument. I commend the council for having the guts to oppose the will of the people.”
Not all is lost, though, for the Ohana Amendment or the current council.
“Instead of spending the hundreds of thousands of dollars on a lawsuit, they could embody it,” Richman said. “They can do it today in an ordinance. I think their noses are out of joint because we did it with a charter amendment and it offended them.”
Richman, a Po‘ipu resident who has been married for 55 years and has four children and nine grandchildren, sees development as a major issue approaching not only the South Shore but the entire island.
“When you study the history of how this came about, zoning absolutely does not apply today,” he said of a 15-year-old plan. “Zone changes occur over a three- to five-year year period, not 15 years. The economic conditions — land values, the county budget, overpopulation, over-development — is not what it was when the zoning was done 15 years ago.
“You can’t have a forward vision on the council by looking through the rear-view mirror.”
He favors sunset provisions on zoning, and granting long-term, cheap land leases for residents. In this respect, Richman says, the will of the people is “starting to register” with the council
“I think the County Council is starting to touch on this, but it’s too late,” he said. “They’re starting to realize that they haven’t been doing the job.”
Richman wants to see developers pay their fair share, which would not only temper growth but also contribute to badly needed infrastructure.
“I would set forth impact fees. Aspen (Colo.), Sun Valley (Idaho), they all have impact fees,” he said. “Look at the value of what the county represents. It’s not just the roads; it’s the comfort stations, the beaches, police stations, fire stations, it’s all part of the county’s wealth, and when a developer buys in for pennies on the dollar, we’re giving it away.”
Instead, if a developer is going to account for 2 percent of anything — infrastructure, traffic, luxury condos, tourism revenue, parking, oceanfront property — “Hit them for 2 percent.”
While impact fees certainly won’t clear up Kaua‘i’s major problems overnight, Richman plans to address traffic with a two-prong approach, neither of which require the building of more roads.
“I’d seriously consider limiting the number of rental cars,” he said, citing Bermuda as an example where this has been successful.
He’d also like to completely subsidize public transportation, making it free to the public.
“It’s subsidized now to the tune of 80 percent,” Richman said. “Go ahead and do the rest. You’re not going to break the county.”
There are other long-term problems to address as well.
“There’s a tremendous shortage of labor just starting to be realized,” he said, adding that the county’s unemployment rate can be deceiving. “It’s a low rate, but we suffer from people who are unqualified. We need to look for economy in lieu of tourism: art, books, computer software — it doesn’t take much in the way of power.”
Boosting the island’s economy in creative, low-consumption ways is the key, he says. And while everyone these days favors exploring alternative energy, Richman took a stand on one semi-controversial topic: Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative’s plans for a waste-to-energy plant that has drawn criticism from some environmental groups.
“We accumulate 240 tons (of waste) a day,” he said. “Burn some of it. We can generate five megawatts of power. There has to be a comprehensive plan of waste and alternative energy.”
Richman, who will turn 80 in February, spent 40 years in family practice and internal medicine in the San Fernando Valley-Los Angeles area, running his own company — Lakeside Medical — and, as chairman, overseeing the building of a hospital — Panorama Memorial, now known as Mission Community Hospital — along the way.
While seemingly comfortable in retirement, the World War II veteran used the GI Bill to pay for medical school. “Thank God for our government’s creativity,” he said.
A recipient of a degree in atomic physics from Syracuse University, Richman even consulted with the space program.
Through it all, he tried to keep politics — and life — simple.
“Listen to what the people say,” he said. “The people are reasonable.”
Looking ahead to the Nov. 7 election, Richman knows he has an uphill battle, and he makes no effort to hide his disappointment in his poor showing in the primary.
“I didn’t do as well as I thought,” he said of his 2.4 percent tally, barely good enough for 12th. “I can’t understand how the people criticize and then ask for more.”