Kauai County may have just had its most important local election in a generation, but who would have thought the new County Council would begin by calling police to remove a public commenter who refused to relinquish his seat until someone told him who called the meeting?
Improbable though it may seem, that’s exactly what happened Monday at a non-televised public meeting to choose a new council chair and vice chair and approve committee assignments. Those choices could only be straw votes subject to ratification on Dec. 3, when the new council is sworn in.
Background: Every time a new council is seated, members have to select their leaders. Usually, this is done at a backroom meeting someplace with no notice to anyone. It’s not a violation of the state Sunshine Law because, before they are sworn in, councilmembers-elect aren’t “public officials” subject to open meeting requirements.
This time, though, the seven members agreed to hold the usually secret meeting in public, but for it to ratify in public an already taken secret decision. Huh?
On top of that, an ad ran in this newspaper on Sunday accusing the incoming council of agreeing to install Arryl Kaneshiro — just elected to his third term — as chair, even though Kaneshiro works for Grove Farm, one of the Big Three landowners that control much of Kauai’s acreage and economy.
The complaint was lodged by Community Coalition Kauai, an ad hoc, grassroots organization. Not to be ignored, though, is that the group had some skin in the game. It had organized many of the community candidate forums leading up to the election and had offered a creative solution for the dilemma of holding a forum for an election in which 24 candidates were running for seven seats.
Accordingly, on Monday afternoon, apparent supporters of Community Coalition Kauai — more than 50 of them — crammed the council chamber in the Historic County Building to protest Kaneshiro’s imminent selection as chair and that of Ross Kagawa as vice chair. In their ad and in their public statements, members of the group demanded that Councilmember Mason Chock get the chairman position because Kaneshiro is disqualified because he is an executive at Grove Farm.
Kaneshiro is a hard-working legislator and there is no evidence he has simply been his employer’s flunky on the council.
In fact, he has scrupulously recused himself several times and not voted on matters that involve Grove Farm.
It’s also true that Grove Farm is by no means a malevolent corporation — even if it is owned by Steve Case, the man who gave the country the AOL-Time Warner fiasco.
When Kaneshiro was running four years ago, I observed in this space that having a large landowner represented on the council was not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not sure I think an employee of a large landowner should be CHAIR of the County Council. But this is what’s going to happen and Kaneshiro’s integrity — which he does possess — will have to keep him in line.
I asked Kaneshiro about this before the meeting and he shrugged before observing “it is what it is.” But he followed up saying “Grove Farm has never pushed me to do anything.” He repeated that assertion in the meeting that followed, during which Chock delivered what the crowd clearly considered bad news.
It should be pointed out that, even a packed council chamber where everyone says the same thing does not necessarily represent community sentiment. The loudest voice isn’t always — or even often — the most rational, logical and persuasive. We certainly found that out during the ugly run-up to the Bill 2491 GMO/pesticide debacle.
But this jumps ahead of the initial comic relief, which consisted of Ken Taylor — one of the island’s most visible and endearing gadflies — who challenged the very existence of the meeting and demanded to know who called it and set the agenda.
To show he meant business, Taylor declared he would refuse to vacate the public comment chair until someone answered his questions or the police came to drag him away.
A half hour passed and then an extreme example of wise policing materialized. A Kauai Police Department sergeant appeared outside the council chamber. His body language suggested he understood that entering the room in uniform could be seen as provocative in the already acrid emotional atmosphere of 50 people protesting a political deal that was already done.
So it fell to County Attorney Mauna Kea Trask to carry an apparent message to Taylor: The police really were there and he really had better go out into the hallway or be removed. To his credit, that’s as far as Taylor took it. Even more to the credit of the sergeant and KPD, the cop simply walked down the stairs with Taylor to talk him off the emotional ledge. No cuffs. No arrest. No pat-down. No raised voices.
That left it to Chock to break what the crowd clearly took as bad news: The deal was done and the Kaneshiro-Kagawa leadership team was going to be elected, regardless of what community members said. But why did the council-elect go through the motions of holding a public meeting if the objective was simply to ratify a closed door deal?
Not to be ignored, in the end this incoming County Council in fact declined to answer Taylor’s questions: Who called the meeting? Who approved the agenda? Why wasn’t the meeting more open to public scrutiny and did the new council members actually have the legal right to elect leadership under the circumstances?
Taylor’s questions were not unreasonable.
Let’s not let this inauspicious start get in the way of working together — all of us — to help make this County Council term one that exudes compassion, shared decision making and community collaboration.
Everyone — including the council members, Community Coalition Kauai, Taylor and the incoming administration of Mayor-elect Derek Kawakami — has a stake in this.
Let’s work this out so that, six months from now, Monday’s episode looks like comic relief and no one chants “Lock him up!” at Ken Taylor.
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea-based freelance writer and furniture maker. He has more than 45 years’ experience in journalism.