Walter Lewis began writing a column for The Garden Island in 2005. It came to be called “A Better Kauai.”
About 300 columns later, the retired attorney has left Kauai. He hopes, in some ways, he made a difference.
“I don’t know how much success I’ve had, but I received many, many compliments,” Lewis said during an interview with TGI.
The 92-year-old Lewis recently moved to northern California, where he will live in a retirement home and be near family. His departure follows the death of Glenda Lewis, his beloved wife of 60 years. They met when he was a young attorney fresh out of law school living in the Bay Area, and she was a stewardess. Don’t ask him the date of their first encounter, but he knows the place.
“I met her on an airplane between San Francisco and Chicago,” he said, smiling.
Lewis graduated from the University of California Berkeley Law School in 1951. His 34-year legal career focused primarily on corporate law, and he was a general counsel for two major corporations.
When he retired in 1985, Walter and Glenda moved to Kauai and settled in Princeville. Three years ago, they moved to Lihue.
“When we moved here, having a legal background, I didn’t want to practice law, but I wanted to use the skills I acquired over that time,” he said.
So he began participating on the board of the Princeville home association, where they lived and served for 17 years, and later, joined the board of the Princeville Public Library.
During that time, he became familiar with the business and political dealings of Kauai, decided to become active in county affairs, and began attending County Council meetings.
“I thought maybe I could learn of the activities of the council and to serve a purpose,” Lewis said.
After sitting in on some meetings, he came to a conclusion.
“In many respects, I thought the County Council did not function with the facility which I thought it should, and I began to submit letters to the editor,” he said.
In 2005, he began to write a bi-weekly column for TGI, which he wrote for 11 years. It was principally devoted to the idea of improving county government at all levels. Every column was well-researched. While not everyone agreed with Lewis and his views, his facts were the facts, he said, and he made sure to get it right.
“Once I assembled the facts and what I was going to write about, it just flowed,” he said.
Sometimes, “A Better Kauai” took the mayor to task. He wrote about property taxes if he thought they were too high. He wrote about The Kauai Bus because he thought it was poorly operated. He criticized the County Council for losing touch with the people it represented. He pointed out what he saw as ethical problems. He argued against what he saw as council efforts to close out the public by holding executive sessions under the pretext of legal exemptions. And sometimes, “A Better Kauai” aimed at the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.
There were columns that upset the powers in charge, and they responded with commentaries of their own. There were columns that went unchallenged. Either way, Lewis wrote what he believed needed to be said. He didn’t worry if he upset someone at city hall. His goal was to fight the good fight for the people. He saw his role as a watchdog of government — even when he was a retired attorney and could have just relaxed at his Princeville home and played more of his favorite activity, golf.
Why did he do it? It wasn’t the money, as he received only a few bucks for each column.
“Motivation is always a little difficult to nail down,” Lewis said. “But essentially, I felt things were not going as favorably for the residents of the county as they should. I felt I might make a contribution.”
He had what he called “a little talent in writing, so I thought I could produce information for the people so they might be better aware of deficiencies.”
Lewis takes pride in his role in helping defeat a bid in 2001 by KIUC to buy Kauai Electric for $300 million. He believed the bid was far too high, and was successful in working with the mayor at the time, Maryanne Kusaka, in getting KIUC to withdraw the offer. Six months later, KIUC offered about $215 million.
“It was still a bit on the high side, but ultimately accepted,” Lewis said. “At least through some of my efforts the county and its taxpayers saved $80 or $90 million dollars,” he said. “It was a benefit for the people of the island.”
Lewis was a strong advocate for a council-manager system to replace the council-mayor system, and worked for 10 years to get the county to adopt it. There was much discussion about the council-manager earlier this year and a proposal was submitted to the council, but in the end it was abruptly rejected.
It was one of his biggest disappointments.
“I think the county-manager system failed because some of the councilmembers have ambitions to be mayor and didn’t want to lose that,” he said.
Efforts are being made to revive it, Lewis said, “and it will be ultimately successful, but I will not be there to see it.”
Asked for his thoughts on the current County Council, Lewis hesitates, seems to ponder what to say, then offers an answer.
“One of my observations about our county, the people who were elected to serve, is they operate pretty much on their own biases and prejudices and don’t listen very much to the people in the county who they represent,” he said. “Individually, I think the members are all likeable. I don’t dislike any member of the council. But I don’t think they operated effectively and I don’t think they listen to the people at all. I think they make decisions based on their personal ambitions and prejudices.”
Once settled in his new home in California, Lewis said he doesn’t plan to continue doing his best to hold the government accountable. No more columns. No more taking on government. No more fighting taxes. Instead, he’ll spend time with family, enjoy the sunshine, and look back on his time on Kauai with only fond memories.
“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the climate, the people, the opportunities.”
It can be said, without a doubt, Walter Lewis did, indeed, leave Kauai a better place.