As a longtime County of Kauai department manager and the current mayor, Bernard Carvalho Jr. said he is not afraid to make tough decisions.
“As mayor, you need to look at what you have before you can even look at what more you can add on to the table,” Carvalho said during an interview with The Garden Island earlier this month, during which he spoke about his administration’s challenges and prospects for the future.
During the nearly six years he has been in office, Carvalho said he has had to make his fair share of decisions, starting with his first run for mayor in 2008 after Bryan J. Baptiste died in office. At that time, Carvalho was the director of the county’s newly formed Department of Parks and Recreation.
Some of the candidates who ran against him already had track records of their own, including former mayor JoAnn Yukimura, now a Kauai County councilwoman, and Councilman Mel Rapozo.
“It took heart, determination, never giving up, going through so many tribulations as we went through this whole campaign — knowing that support was there and the attitude of succeeding was at the forefront,” Carvalho said. “We ran based on that, and I made the commitment that, should I be elected, I would look at the current projects that Mayor Baptiste had and see if we could follow through.”
That mission was at the forefront of his mind when he was elected mayor in the 2008 general election. What resulted, Carvalho said, was a blend of visions from the late mayor that focused on specific areas: strengthening the economy; becoming more sustainable; bolstering services for kupuna, keiki and visitors; and improving customer service.
“I was really wanting to, having come from the internal operations, see how I can make a difference internally so it can match up with external expectations, which is the people,” Carvalho said. “There was this thinking of how to kind of match that as we began to move through our administration.”
But one of the first goals his administration decided to tackle was a contentious one: the siting of a new landfill, which at that time, was slated to be constructed in the middle of Kalaheo coffee fields.
“At that time, I was thinking, ‘Something is not right here, so how did this happen?’ because from the feedback I was getting, I had a lot of resistance on hosting a landfill in the middle of Kalaheo,” Carvalho recalled.
The community discussions that followed, he said, were heated at times, but ultimately served as one of his administration’s most valuable lessons.
“I think it became clearer that the challenges kind of transformed into possibilities and a need to make it become a reality,” Carvalho said. “You kind of think about it, sort it through, ask the right questions, gather the right people and just make it happen. I always say this, ‘We never make mistakes. We make adjustments.’”
It’s an adjustment that, Carvalho said, continues since he and other administration officials are seeking to site a landfill and resource recovery park for recyclable materials at an alternative location on Maalo Road in Kapaia.
“In everything that we do, and we may falter here and there, but for the most part, we’re always out and about and I’m always asking questions about what they think and how they think development plans are going,” Carvalho said. “My main message was to engage and stay engaged with the community” in the midst of any controversial issues that come about.
Navigating a ‘major, major controversy’
There was, however, one particular issue that really put Carvalho and his administration to the test: Bill 2491, now Ordinance 960, which sought to regulate pesticide use and genetically modified organisms used and produced by large-scale agricultural operations on Kauai.
“I think by just sitting at the table and talking about it before it got out the way it did, we would have had more positive results — it wouldn’t have divided our community,” Carvalho said.
Though he supports some of the concerns addressed by the bill, such as buffer zones and pesticide use disclosures, Carvalho said he still has concerns about some of the legal, enforcement and management issues outlined in the county law.
“I felt that, based on the information that I had and the legal advice that I was getting, we needed more time,” Carvalho recalled. “Sometimes, when you jump into making decisions just because, and knowing that it could divide our people, even more so that’s a red flag to take a time out, relax and talk about it.”
The advice, however, did not prevent the bill from being passed and sent to Carvalho’s office for his signature.
“I, as mayor, felt that I was being set up to fail, if you know what I mean, by forcing this on me as my responsibility to manage this issue, which was delivered the wrong way,” Carvalho said. “I stood there throughout that whole ordeal and tried to keep everybody under control.”
Before he vetoed the bill, Carvalho said he invited the top five leaders from the opposing sides into his office for a private meeting, he disclosed his decision. It was one of the more difficult decisions he has had to make as mayor.
“Everybody has a part in this, and that was my message,” Carvalho recalled. “It’s not just about GMOs, it’s not just about pesticides — it’s about people and families. Would I want my children to get sick to the point where they lose their lives? No. Nobody wants that, but you have to be careful on how you manage so you don’t get caught up in all of this and you target one group over others who are doing pretty much the same thing, and then you get into lawsuits.”
When asked how the issue polarized the community, Carvalho recalled how pro-bill supporters wore red shirts, while those opposed to it wore blue ones.
“I stood in the middle of this major, major controversy — people coming out and supporting different sides — and I was hoping that we could bring it to the purple side, which is Kauai,” Carvalho said. “That’s what I mean in dividing the community: ‘I’m against you and you’re against me.’ That’s what it was.”
Carvalho said he believes it’s not too late to reopen talks.
“People are listening more but there’s still that little division that is still happening, and it’s based on one issue,” Carvalho said. “As mayor, I have many issues.”
It is common to see him at community events. Carvalho said attending them gives him the opportunity to talk to a wide range of people.
“I think as mayor, as a leader, you need to know your people — you need to know what they’re thinking,” Carvalho said.
When he is not out and about, Carvalho enjoys spending time his wife, Gina, a part-time nurse at Wilcox Memorial Hospital in Lihue, or playing his ukulele or guitar in the garage of his home.
“Born and raised here, I have a chance to make a difference for our island as a team leader,” Carvalho said. “I just want to make it better and better — you cannot make it perfect, but as long as we can get better, better and better and keep the charm and character of Kauai the same as we can, but engage with all of the resources coming our way and incorporate and grow Kauai and Niihau responsibly.”
Darin Moriki, county government reporter, can be reached at 245-0428 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @darinmoriki.