County Council Chair Mel Rapozo slid into the banquette at JJ’s Broiler on Kalapaki Beach looking a little the worse for wear. He’d had a cold-induced coughing fit that caused a small blood vessel in his eye to burst, so he looked a bit like he’d been in a fight.
A fight, that is, other than the one in which he is engaged politically with Councilmember Derek Kawakami to become Kauai County’s next mayor in an election that ranks as one of the most significant local races in a generation.
Rapozo versus Kawakami is, as the old political saying goes, a choice, not an echo. Rapozo would shake up the county bureaucracy and try to trim the budget by as much as 10 percent by zeroing out unfilled vacancies and imposing stark reforms on departments like Parks and Recreation.
There are clear differences between the two candidates. While neither will pigeonhole himself in any political niche — like “moderate” or “conservative” — Rapozo, who looks every bit the ex-cop he is, probably falls on the traditionalist side of the ledger as voters prepare for Election Day on Nov. 6.
TGI asked both candidates to sketch out their visions of the first hundred days of their respective administrations. Rapozo’s would:
w Immediately seek proposals for alternatives to the county’s existing programs to handle trash and recycling and to “initiate green measures throughout (the) island.”
w Introduce staffing and performance audits for county employees, “starting in the mayor’s office.”
w Implement comprehensive traffic and affordable housing plans.
w Appoint “qualified and competent” department heads and administrators, especially relating to affordable housing, traffic, infrastructure and parks.
w Cut income requirements for families to qualify for “affordable” housing from 140 percent of median income to 100 percent.
w Support county employees “to fulfill the vision of the new administration” and to build employee teams.
w Meet with the governor, Kauai’s delegation to the Legislature and other mayors.
Rapozo is a hometown product, born and raised on Kauai. His first job out of school, at 19, was with the Kauai Police Department. That ended when he was caught in political upheaval in the department and found himself on the job market.
He found unrelated employment and eventually gravitated to private investigation work, especially serving legal papers on people he often had to track down. He got involved in county politics when he ran unsuccessfully for council in 1998. Elected four years later, he’s served on the panel ever since — as chair for the last four years. He supplements his county salary by working as night auditor at a resort.
“I never cared about politics” while on the KPD, Rapozo said. “I was the white-collar detective so I did all the financial crimes and some guy once said, ‘Mel, you paying any attention to the County Council?’”
In the years since, he has come to see the county bureaucracy as bloated and the budget too extravagant.
“It’s just that no one ever wants to reduce expenses,” he said. “I’ve never seen a mayor require department heads to go line by line and figure out what they don’t need.”
Rapozo is well-known for his opposition to projects dear to the heart of Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., especially the TIGER grant that is being used to revitalize the Lihue town core. Rapozo believes the money could be better spent in places like Kapaa.
One day recently, he said — in jest, he insisted — to the mayor regarding new projects related to the TIGER grant, “You guys better break ground before I become mayor or I’m sending that money back.”
How much can actually be wrung from the county’s budget of more than $200 million?
“I would honestly like to see a 10 percent reduction. I think 10 percent is do-able. That’s not 10 percent across the board. The larger (departments) can absorb them and the little ones can’t.”
Rapozo is not loath to name names. The worst offender, he said, is Parks and Recreation.
“We have, in fact, too many people in middle and upper management,” he said. “More than we need in Parks.”
He said his approach to the deficiencies in Parks and Recreation would be simple: “If you called me on a Sunday and told me the bathroom at the park was filthy,” he said, he would call the department head and tell him “get your ass down to the park and clean the bathroom and mow the grass. Not your boys. You go.”
Rapozo continued, “The head of Parks is only going to tolerate that for so long, then he’s going to make sure the job gets done.”
He said he’d trust employees to identify areas where economies can be realized.
“The guys in the parks, they know what to do. The guys at the refuse transfer stations, they know what they need. It’s not like taking over an 0-and-16 football team. There are a lot of simple fixes we just don’t do.”
Rapozo has insisted repeatedly he has no short list of prospective top county executives he would bring in immediately after inauguration.
He has an equally traditional view of the Police Department, where, Rapozo says, too many officers have been reassigned from patrol to other duties.
“We’ve taken a lot of people off the streets and put them in different units to serve different purposes,” he said. “I’m not saying those different units aren’t needed, but I’ve always felt the streets are where you need cops.”
In the case of KPD, though, Rapozo might collide with one of the realities of Kauai County. Kauai has what many call a weak-mayor form of government. In the case of KPD, for example, the mayor doesn’t appoint the chief and can’t unilaterally fire or discipline the chief. That is the province of the Police Commission. Granted, the mayor appoints all seven members, but with staggered terms and delays built into requirements for County Council approval for all new commissioners, the inertia working against change can be daunting.
“I anticipate major change, but that really will depend on who gets appointed,” he said.
Another of Rapozo’s gripes is with the Planning Department, which he contends has become more of a permitting bureaucracy than an agency committed to broad forms of planning.
He contended that Planning has relied on consultants — who he equated to “snake oil salesmen” — to map out new ways to run the permitting system, all of which, he contends, have slowed the process to a crawl.
He said that, though the County Council might be reluctant to approve such a change, he would favor a rule that requires that if a permit application is not completely processed and acted upon within 90 days of submission, whatever it proposes is automatically approved.
Rapozo is aware that Kawakami has a strong lead in terms of union endorsements for his campaign. While that is traditionally a disadvantage for the person with fewer endorsements, Rapozo believes Kawakami is too beholden to county employee and organized labor interests.
“It actually makes it easier for me to bring change,” he said.
“They’re not untouchable and I think that’s what they need,” he said of union-represented county workers.
Rapozo believes the mayor has broad authority to impose reform and that the County Council is limited in how it can stand in the way only by its authority over the budget.
He said there are some exemplary county agencies. He singled out Finance, Housing and Elderly Affairs.
Rapozo is absolutely convinced that his plan to repurpose cane-haul roads into new highways is feasible and that it would cost a fraction of the $500 million price tag Kawakami has put on any ambitious road construction project.
“Why just keep talking about it, you know,” he said.
He is also not a believer in the Kauai Bus system as a means to bring meaningful change to traffic congestion. He’s not opposed to the bus, but, clearly, Rapozo thinks Kauai people won’t give up their cars and that the demand for more and better roads must eventually prevail.
In terms of overtourism and the growing awareness that Kauai has reached — or exceeded — its tourism carrying capacity, Rapozo agrees the island has reached that point, but is reluctant to inflict too much damage to the visitor industry. “I think in a sense the problem will fix itself,” he said, “because if we don’t take care of it, people will stop coming.”
“People come here for the beauty,” he said, “and they’re not going to Maui or Oahu for that. But, you know, how long is that going to last with people going to the toilet and finding it full. That stuff leaves a lasting impression, you know?”
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident and retired public relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.