Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami was sitting in his office in the Moikeha Building in the Lihue Civic Center recalling his first day at work as Kauai’s chief executive, just 100 days before.
His wife, Monica, a teacher, was sitting on the other side of the room as the mayor recalled the two of them getting ready for work that day as he struggled with what such a radical departure from his previous employment — as an executive at Times-Big Save Markets and then as an elected official at the county and state levels — would be like.
The ever-helpful Monica had piped up, they both recalled, with: “Read the manual.”
Kawakami got a fresh chuckle out of that, the point being, of course, that no manual comes with the job.
It was just less than a week ago. Kawakami had just delivered his first State of the County address, a speech in which he used the word “roads” 13 times, “parks” 12, “housing,” 11, “infrastructure” three and “mobility” four.
The terms “GMO” and “pesticide” did not come up at any point in the speech, which spanned just over 4,300 words.
It was a clear signal that Kawakami looks forward to moving the county along on a traditional path that emphasizes bread-and-butter issues. His summary: “The biggest unexpected thing for me is how unique it is to be mayor of Kauai. That didn’t really sink until after the first month.”
He had announced an operating budget of $242 million and a capital budget of $36 million — a precipitous one-year uptick until the realization that the new half-percent increase in the general excise tax — which is expected to produce $24 million in new revenue — will be earmarked for roads and transportation. The budget is close to flat otherwise.
“But I want to be very honest with you,” he cautioned his audience. “This is not a problem we will solve in a year, but we promise you that you will see progress. Repairs are on the way.”
That would seem a natural line for any politician, but especially on Kauai — where island infrastructure and the lack of a comprehensive transit system are chronic problems — it carries with it an element of risk. New paving and additional buses are both in the category of high visibility. Kawakami is betting that enough freshly laid asphalt and newly extended bus lines will be seen by the public during the first year of his administration and be considered a success.
Beneath the surface of the speech, though, was a series of clear messages to county employees about expectation for change.
In the speech and the interview, Kawakami emphasized that he plans to start slowly, by picking off “low hanging fruit,” like long lines at the department of motor vehicles counter and the need to place automated car and truck registration kiosks in places like supermarkets.
“By design,” he said, “we are going to lay the tracks out so the people (county employees and others) have the time to jump onboard.”
“We are in the people business and the art and science of managing people is a daunting task. Everybody is going to have their paddle in the ocean. We’re all in the same canoe. This starts from the top. It starts with holding people accountable.”
The mayor had opened his speech by referring to a series of performance audits of county agencies that has already begun. “We are committed to figuring out what we’re doing well and what we need to do better,” he said. “It is the best way to analyze our operations and identify opportunities for efficiencies.”
“I expect them (employees) to push back,” he said. “I anticipate that. It’s going to be a learning process. I’m going to push it to the very edge.”
Before the inauguration, some critics of the mayor said they feared he would not move the process of change along quickly enough. In his inauguration, he made clear that he sees this all happening incrementally.
But in the case of the Parks &Recreation Department, it is significant that Kawakami chose to go outside the county structure for new blood.
He named Patrick Porter, until recently the Kauai forester for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, to head the parks department and moved Wally Rezentes, formerly managing director under Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. and a seasoned county official, to serve as Porter’s assistant director.
There may be added meaning to this decision, because the next six to 12 months will be a time of enormous change on the North Shore, with Kuhio Highway probably reopening sometime this year and an entirely new operating system introduced at Haena Beach State Park, operated by Porter’s most recent employer.
County-state collaboration will be critical to success as the park limits visitor counts to less than half of the daily average before last April’s disastrous storms. It will have to be a county-state partnership on everything from parking enforcement to operating a viable tourist and resident shuttle.
Kawakami used park maintenance to illustrate his point since the County Council just approved more than $300,000 to purchase industrial strength lawnmowers and other equipment to replace aging machines currently in use.
“We’re starting fresh,” Kawakami said of the lawnmowers and other items, and employees will need to realize “this is someone else’s equipment,” namely the public that owns it.
What lessons has the new mayor learned in his first 100 days? “I’ve got to do a better job balancing family … a better job being a husband and dad,” he said. “That has been the biggest challenge. The first 100 days has been a buzz up until now.”
But perspective needs to be maintained, he said. He has two children, one of whom is a teenage girl. He said he aspires to his kids continuing not looking “at us as anything but the dorky mom and dad.”
“When I’m with my family,” he said, “my cell phone will be put away, even if my wife is always on Instagram.”
Allan Parachini of Kilauea is a furniture maker and a former public relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.