Talk Story: Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami

Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami comes off the Kauai Marriott Resort & Beach Club’s Kukui’s restaurant breakfast buffet line last Friday with a side dish of pancakes developed by Kauai High School students in the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism.

Now six months into his term, Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami sat down with The Garden Island to talk story about his time in office thus far, the future of Kauai and the issues facing his home island.

Can you say a little bit about your passion for surfing and how you try to still find time to enjoy the water?

I do. Like anything else in life, people have to make time to eat. For me, I schedule it in. I wake up really early in the morning naturally as it is and when the summer months start coming, you can be at the ocean as early as 5:30 a.m. and you can be out of the water by 7 a.m. so I schedule it in.

I’m very lucky to have a very supportive wife. She understands that this is the balance in my life. Certainly, it makes me a better decision-maker. I feel that the ocean has always been, let’s put it this way, the ocean is my church. That’s where I feel God’s presence the most (there). For me, it helps to keep me grounded.

When you’re in the ocean by yourself at that hour, you can’t help but be humble because there are forces of nature that are way more powerful than you, so it teaches you how to surrender yourself to things that you can’t control. I love it, it’s a big part of my life.

What has the transition been like for you now six months into your term? What has the transition been like for you and your family with your new role?

I can’t say enough about how supportive my family has been, everybody. And not just my immediate family, I’m talking about my wife’s family, all of her cousins, her aunties. We couldn’t have done it without that huge support system. I think the biggest transition is that I have to be a much better communicator than ever before because there are so many moving pieces in our life. That communication in any relationship is key, but even more so now because our life is such on a structured schedule. I’m very fortunate to have a great support staff that helps us manage the day to day as far as where I need to be when I need to be there, and then also being able to understand and be close enough to understand what times are important for me and for my family. And so they make sure to prioritize those times in my life so that I can just dedicate quality time to my family. So it’s been a good transition, I have to say.

What are some of the things that you are enjoying most about your new role and what are some of the challenges that you might not have expected?

I think what I enjoy the most is the honor and the privilege of being a servant to this island. That’s what this job is, you are like the ultimate servant to this island, especially because I will always feel indebted to the people and to Kauai for everything that it’s done for my grandfather who came over as an immigrant at the age of 12.

Everything that this island has done and provided for my grandmother and my grandfather on my mom’s side who grew up as very poor farmers in Huleia. Then everything that this island has done to contribute towards my children, to my wife. Because of that, it gives me an opportunity to at least try to pay back the people of the island by serving them. I think that is the best honor anybody can have, is to be placed in a position to give back.

I would say the biggest challenge, the biggest challenge is not being able to effectuate change as fast as I want to because the government is designed to move very methodically. Everything we do has checks and balances built into the system. For good reason, to avoid corruption, to avoid favoritism, to make sure taxpayer resources are being utilized to the best and most efficient way, which sometimes it’s not efficient at all.

We are constantly striving to find ways to be able to streamline processes and also eliminate redundancies which can add to the delay of being able to make change happen. I come from the private sector where we can make change happen at the drop of a hat, but you can also crash private sector business in the blink of an eye as well. So there’s pros and cons. So we’re just taking a look within our own process to see where we can make it a better system to be able to move things quicker and still have all of the safety measures in place.

You had a lot of relationships prior to this role in the private sector and as a councilmember. Have you found that a lot of those relationships have changed or are different now in this capacity?

No, you know I am blessed to have been able to serve on the council, so I have a great relationship with our council. I’ve been in the House of Representatives, so I’ve been able to build some strong alliances there. Of course, on Kauai, it’s a small island and I think the biggest change is that there’s a transitional period where people have to accept that my role as a mayor and an employer is different than my role as a friend. Because it is impossible to not have those type of relationships crossover because this is a small island.

Coming from Big Save you build these relationships that become very personal, often times evolving into friendships. But when people clock in, then I am their employer and they are associates, so there are certain things that we need to accomplish during the workday.

And then when they clock out, then we go back to our lives on the softball field or out into the surf lineup or wherever it is that I have these relationships and that evolves as well. And I’m very fortunate that most of my friends understood that and they understand that, they have no problem with it and they work harder because of that.

So being a councilmember and rising up the ranks organically, do you think that is the optimal way to go about becoming mayor, do you think it has given you a little more perspective?

A: It has given me a huge advantage. I wouldn’t say that that’s the only track you can take. We have had some very good mayors and leaders not go through that track that I went through, which was KIUC, council, state House of Representatives, council and then mayor. But it’s helped me. And I tell you why and it’s because I’ve sat for a number of years on the same table as our councilmembers. I know what’s important to them. I know what their expectations are. I also know where their frustrations can be at times and because of that we’re able to accommodate, I believe, their needs much better.

Then we don’t have to be faced with trying to read peoples minds because in a sense I’ve had to live it. Some of the big concerns are the same concerns that have existed from the beginning of time between the legislative branch and the executive branch or administration — having clear lines of communication, being responsive to any inquiries that they may have, being open with them when they would like to come to visit a part of our operation.

We are more than accommodating. And then of course when there is a budget, we try to reach out to them to say, ‘hey, what are some of your budgetary priorities? What projects would you like to see and let us work together to see if we can find ways where this can be not only the administration’s budget but all of the people of Kauai’s budget.’ So I think it has been a huge advantage just for the simple fact that it doesn’t take much for me to put myself in their shoes because I’ve walked it. I’ve had to walk along that same journey.

So with your first budget, how is your relationship now with this current council?

A: This council is fantastic. This island has really selected a good hard-working diverse group that really represents this island well and I feel that our relationship with the council is exactly where it should be. We have an open line of communication. Their role is to make sure they provide checks and balances and they do. Nothing is a cake walk for us.

They question every move that we make. If they have recommendations, they are not hesitant to float over their recommendations.

So I’m very optimistic that we are going to be able to move a lot of good projects along because it seems that everybody is focused on just producing a good product and service for our people. I don’t see them getting caught up in the politics that can often pop-up between councils and mayors. So far, everybody has just focused on the issues at hand.

You talked a little bit about how the government works incrementally, so where do you see Kauai in 1o years? How are some of these things that we are doing, how will that play out down the road?

Ten years seems far out, but for an administration, it’s the blink of an eye. Because 10 years is when I got my first start in politics and that went by in a breath. In 10 years I see Kauai moving toward innovation and entrepreneurship. We’re going to start seeing some of the investments that we made in the urban quarter come to fruition.

We’re going to see some people reinvesting into the properties to do more mixed-use and smart growth concepts that we have been incrementally introducing to this island. We’re going to see some of our housing projects like Lima Ola up and running.

So you are going to have a lot of Westside families that are gonna have that housing opportunity as well as economic development on the Westside.

We’re doing things like right now we’re finalizing the purchase of some property in Waimea. And Waimea on the Westside has always had a vision for a sports complex for economic development as well as opportunities for high school and youth sports. So if we are successful in the acquisition of that property, we look forward to working with the state moving toward some of that vision as well as other key priorities such as housing, commercial retail job opportunities on that property.

We are going to be addressing the condition of our roads. And so we should be seeing much better conditions of our roads because we have an infusion of new revenue coming in through the GE surcharge, so we’ll have more resources to address some of the potholes and everything else that we’ve been dealing with. We’re going to be seeing some movement as far as traffic alleviation because of the plans that currently exist will be built up and some of those projects will be under current construction and that’s just the timeline of how things move in government.

We’re going to see more roundabouts deployed to keep cars moving. It’s hard because that question is something that I can speak of way longer than half an hour, but for a good snapshot, the future of Kauai in 10 years is very promising. We’re seeing our educational system evolving as well, so we are getting our kids’ careers ready, which is a great thing.

Our college is also evolving, so we are going to have more learning opportunities for our kids to stay at home and get a college degree. With our economic development director whose focused on technology and innovation, we hope to create that 21st-century job that can pay a living wage and that has job security. In 10 years, we see a very bright future, a very optimistic future for Kauai.

Can you touch on a little bit about the homeless crisis and what some of the goals are of the administration to combat the problem?

For some time, I was serving on the advisory board for Catholic Charities. The homeless crisis has always been an issue that has piqued my interest personally. We’re a compassionate island.

There are some very severe challenges in dealing with the homeless issue. Some of the things that we’re doing as a county — which is moving the needle — is one, when we came into this administration we said that we’re going to address some of society’s challenges face-to-face and we’re going to have to stop ducking and dodging and saying mental health is a state issue, homelessness is a state issue, job creation and workforce development is a federal issue.

No. This is all of our issues, so we created “Hale Kokua”. Where under the previous the administration they created a homelessness coordinator, we have a Housing Agency, we have a workforce development team and what we wanted to do is bring all of these services under one roof so that people have a one-stop shop to get the services and advice and counseling and direction that they may need.

When you take a look at housing, it’s usually not just a housing issue. Usually, it’s a workforce development issue. Often times it’s coupled with a mental health issue as well, or a substance abuse issue. Which is why we’ve invested tremendously in Life’s Choices under Theresa Koki. We have a new adolescent healing center that’s almost under completion to invest in our youth. So those are some of the things we are doing to address homelessness.

The other thing that we are working hard on immediately since when we came into office is that we are working with the state to have them executive order a parcel of property that is near services like KEO, adult mental health. It’s near jobs and it’s also near transportation, which are all components that are necessary when you are trying to build transitional housing. We have a vision to have some transitional housing units built, specifically targeted for families with children or single parents with kids.

Because we have to be able to differentiate between the homeless population that want help and can be helped and then you have a segment of the homeless population that refuses help.

We have to decide where we spend our energy — if we’re spending our energy on the people that want help and that we can help. Take, for example, there’s one case and there are resources.

We work with nonprofit agencies, homeless advocates where they get to know the homeless individual. If we find out that there is family back home and they want to be reunited, we have in the past reconnected families by flying homeless individuals from Kauai back to be reunited with their families. In certain cases, we can get them on a plane and they refuse to fly. And we cannot force anybody to go against their will. All we can do is help them reconnect.

We’ve had people that we’ve offered assistance to as far as housing, counseling, and treatment and they’ve refused the services. So what happens is you get into this endless cycle of the judicial process where they get arrested for disorderly conduct or whatever it is under our purview that we can utilize. They make bail. Sometimes the other track is they go to the state hospital to get evaluated. They get released.

The hospital will fly them back to the island that they originate from, which is back here on Kauai. It’s been a challenge as far as that segment of dealing with the homeless issue.

I know people think it is relatively simple, or maybe in their mind, they think it is a simple solution, but I can tell you from dealing with it hands on both on the policy side and the administrative side, it’s an extremely complex issue that has no simple answer. It’s frustrating at times.

What would you say to some of the critics that are inevitable?

A: I want to thank them. I want to thank them for keeping us on our toes. We’re working as hard as we possibly can. And we are always open to constructive criticism. It’s really what builds us up and quite frankly our critics give us the fuel that we need to work harder. They drive us to be better.

They drive me to stay up later and they are the best motivator for the type of person that I am. So I want to thank them for being critics.

They play a key role in the level of performance that I can give this island. I don’t take anything personally, but they fuel my fire so I’m very thankful that we have them.


Ryan Collins, county reporter, can be reached at 245-0424 or

  1. Sheeples May 19, 2019 6:39 pm Reply

    No comments on this? I trust the mayor, he has nothing to gain from being in this position and is doing it solely for the people!! Good on him for getting a session in everyday before slaving away for all us little guys!!!

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