KOLOA — When Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami was asked how the business community could help him and the county be successful, he didn’t hesitate with a simple, lighthearted answer.
“Keep paying your property taxes,” he said with a smile, as the crowd of about 400 laughed.
The mayor fielded a series of question from Kauai Chamber of Commerce President Mark Perriello at a sold-out luncheon on Thursday at the Koloa Landing Resort.
In a 30-minute talk story he was, at times, humorous, serious, direct and, most often, thankful for all the support he has received from his family, his administration and the community.
The crowd, in turn, listened, applauded, and made it clear they were in his corner.
When he came into office in December, goals for the first 100 days included assembling a solid cabinet, setting a vision and priorities, holding a housing summit and looking at ways to improve services.
All of those were accomplished.
But that’s just a start.
People, he said, expect the county government to help them deal with social issues, ranging from mental health, workforce development and elderly affairs. So, the mayor and his team created the Office of Human Concerns.
“If you need help, if you folks know somebody who doesn’t know where to turn, send them to us and we will connect them with the service and a provider,” he said. “We will take care of them to the best of our abilities.”
He said the county will continue to focus on improving roads and parks, which he called the “bread and butter of county government operations.”
The mayor said one major problem he and his team are dealing with is the proliferation of illegal vacation rentals.
“We’ve been taking an aggressive approach to try and address this issue,” he said.
He said he wanted to “clean the air” regarding some concerns that have been expressed about proposals to give the Planning Department more authority, including assessing liens, to be sure regulations regarding property use are followed.
He referred to the department needing “enforcement tools to use for those who are blatant and chronically disregarding the rules, the policies and the laws that we worked hard to pass here on Kauai.
“I want to make it clear that if there’s any fear-mongering that we’re going to utilize these tools to go out there after some grandma’s illegal wheelchair ramp or somebody’s chicken coop, that could not be farther from the truth,” he said.
The mayor said such gossip detracts from the real problem at hand.
“We are going after people who thumb their nose at their neighbors and blatantly disregard the laws that we put in place that many of you folks have asked us to put in place,” Kawakami said. “I wanted to make that very clear just so everybody out there with an illegal chicken coop is not worried that we’re going to put a property lien on your house.”
Asked about the worker shortage affecting businesses and what the county could do to help, the mayor said he was facing the same problem.
“I’m trying to take all your workers,” he said, laughing.
The county, for its part, is trying to create a culture where associates feel they have meaningful work and also feel they are part of a family with a sense of purpose.
Wages, he said, are not always the key issue for employees, but, rather, being in a place where they are valued and can have a career is.
People, he added, are the county’s No. 1 asset, and he sees the county as “in the people business.”
“We’re trying to create a culture where one, the people of Kauai view the county as one of the best places to work,” he said. “There’s no reason why the county can’t be one of the best places to work.”
Regarding curtailing the number of visitors at Queen’s Bath, Kawakami said: “How do you legislate common sense?”
This prompted a round of applause.
He said the county has put up signs warning people about the dangers at Queen’s Bath, erected a fence, closed parking, “yet people insist on going and putting their lives at risk.”
He said one of the toughest things he had to do in the first 100 days of his office was call a mother who just lost her daughter while they were vacationing on Kauai.
“That is a phone call, as a father, that nobody wants to ever make,” he said.
But some people simply refuse to heed local expertise.
“The more you tell them don’t do it, the more they want to try and do it,” he said.
The county has increased its roving lifeguard patrols and recently added lifeguards at Anini Beach, but they can’t be everywhere.
“I don’t have a solution, but it’s something we continually try to work on,” he said.
Kawakami said the county is learning from the business community about ways to think outside the box, “and if you folks want to help the county government, partner with us.”
The biggest thing you can do, he said, “If you see something we’re doing right, let our people know.”
But if you see something they’re not doing right, he had another suggestion: “Don’t put it on Kauai Rants and Raves.”
He said he understands the county often gets blamed for any and all problems, “and we embrace that responsibility.”
“I want you folks to know that we are a government that’s your government. That means we work for you and we embrace it. And we have the philosophy that there’s no more noble profession than being a public servant.”
Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.