LIHUE — There was a time, Beth Tokioka said, when government work, let alone political issues, weren’t on her radar screen.
“Before working for government, I really did not pay attention to local politics or government and how things were happening around me wherever I was living,” the 52-year-old Kauai County spokeswoman said. “I’m almost embarrassed to say that.”
That all changed, however, in 1994 when Mayor Maryanne Kusaka brought Tokioka on board as her executive secretary at a time when the island was still recovering from Hurricane Iniki.
“I had more faith in what she could accomplish than she did at the beginning,” Kusaka recalled about her decision to hire Tokioka, who had moved to Kauai right before Iniki hit in 1992 and was working as an associate sales director at the former Hyatt Regency Kauai, now the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa.
“She grew into so many positions and continues to make me proud,” Kusaka continued. “She validates my first impressions of her capabilities.”
It was a move that would change her life and give her a new perspective on government’s role in society — and vice versa.
“It’s totally changed how I look at myself and my responsibility to be a part of the solution wherever I am and to be able to do my homework, research, make good decisions and be a positive part of whatever dialogue is going on,” Tokioka told The Garden Island on Friday after a full day of budget meetings with Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. and other department heads.
After 21 consecutive years of public service with the county, Tokioka says it is time for her to hang up her hat — at least for now.
“It has just been an amazing opportunity for me to do things that I never, ever would have envisioned,” said Tokioka, who will leave her post as the county’s communications director on March 16. “I just had no idea how it would change my life and my thinking for the better.”
She will officially start a new job on March 23, as the community outreach manager for Syngenta on Kauai, the position previously held by Kauai Economic Development Board President and CEO Susan Tai Kaneko.
“We’re absolutely thrilled to have her,” Syngenta Hawaii spokesman Mark Phillipson said. “In my opinion, her expertise is so highly regarded and someone of her caliber is just hard to come by. We look forward to having her join our team at Syngenta.”
In all, Tokioka has served under four mayors — Kusaka, Bryan Baptiste, Bill “Kaipo” Asing and Carvalho — and held several high-ranking positions within the county.
After serving as Kusaka’s executive secretary for four years, Tokioka was chosen to become the county’s sole public information officer when Kusaka was re-elected in 1998.
She was then picked by Baptiste in 2002 to become the county’s Office of Economic Development director, a position she continued in after he died six years later and Asing took over as mayor.
Carvalho tapped her as the county’s communications director during his first term, in 2008.
Many changes have happened over those years, Tokioka said.
She remembers when Kusaka made some of the initial efforts to transform plans for Ke Ala Hele Makalae, the county’s Eastside coastal path, into a reality by dedicating land in Kealia for it. Over the past seven years alone, Tokioka has seen new affordable housing projects start up and ridership almost double for The Kauai Bus.
“It’s just really nice to walk or drive around the island now and see so many things that I was at least able to be here for and play a small part in,” Tokioka said.
Still, for some time, she has had an overriding desire to return to the private sector.
“At this point, I feel as though I’m ready for something different and I really want to go back into the private sector again before I retire for good,” Tokioka said. “I just knew there was something else out there for me, and I’ve been feeling like that for a while.”
Though she is quick to dismiss the suggestion of running for office, Tokioka said she feels good “supporting people who I really admire and believe in.”
Her decision to accept the job at Syngenta was based on her desire to bolster the island’s agricultural industry — an appreciation and passion that developed while she was working with agricultural users of all types to create the county’s Kauai Made program during her time in the Office of Economic Development.
“That has always stayed with me,” Tokioka said. “I didn’t grow up on a farm, but through this experience and getting to know people in agriculture on Kauai, I always felt like I wanted to help to create a more robust and thriving agricultural sector on the island.”
Apart from working with colleagues who “have a heart of service, really care about what they do, work really hard and don’t get a lot of praise for the work that they do,” Tokioka said she will miss having “opportunities to do something for someone out there in the public numerous times throughout the day.”
“I wasn’t born and raised here — I was lucky enough to land here 23 years ago — and I always kind of feel like I’ve got to earn my keep,” Tokioka said. “Every day, I get up and feel like, ‘What am I going to do today to earn my keep here on Kauai and give back?’ With this job, I know every day I have many, many opportunities to do that, so I’m sure I will miss that to a certain extent.”
Regardless of where she lands, Kusaka said, there will always be a place for Tokioka’s many talents.
“She is a beautiful writer, articulate speaker and will be an asset to any company that would have her be a part of the team,” Kusaka said. “I wish her the best of luck, always.”
While she isn’t completely ruling out a possible return to public service, Tokioka says she is ready to turn the page in her career.
“I wouldn’t say ‘Definitely not,’ but I also know that I leave public service feeling really good about the time that I’ve been able to spend,” Tokioka said.
“I am leaving really with a heart that says, ‘This chapter is behind me, and I’m excited for the new one.’”