LIHU‘E — Kaua‘i councilmembers have expressed their frustrations over the lack of transparency of the mayor’s administration in responding to COVID-19.
Councilmembers voiced their concerns last week at a council meeting.
“The administration wants us to appropriate money, they come over and are nice and talk to us about what they want but (then) it’s back to being a dictatorship,” council Vice Chair Ross Kagawa said. “I don’t feel the teamwork.”
In the past two months, Mayor Derek Kawakami has created, amended and lifted 10 local rules, as well as implemented a four-day work week for county employees, established an Economic Recovery Strategy Team, and set up shop at the Kaua‘i Emeregency Management Agency’s Emergency Operations Center. Coucilmember Felicia Cowden said she went to visit the EOC and was “told to not come back.”
“We are elected officials. It is an erosion of democracy to not include us,” Cowden said during Wednesday’s meeting, talking to county Office of Economic Development Director Nalani Brun in regards to the strategy teams.
Kawakami acknowledged the lack of communication, pointing to the need to quickly make decisions and his authority and duty as mayor to make them.
“A lot has happened in a very short amount of time,” Kawakami wrote in a statement to The Garden Island. “We acknowledge that under normal circumstances, we would have time to adequately inform, deliberate and make decisions alongside the council. But this is not a political process. This is a pandemic, and we are in an emergency. We have to act quickly in order to protect life and safety.”
Kawakami and his administration has had to make adjustments to plans when state or federal actions shake out in real time, often at the last minute.
“Further, many decisions from the state and federal level happen at a moment’s notice and can leave the administration a very short window to execute and implement an operational plan. In that respect, I share the council’s frustration in not having adequate time to effectively communicate,” Kawakami said.
Former mayor JoAnn Yukimura’s administration faced its own relationship issues with the council of that time, and when she was a councilmember as well.
“It is not for me to say whether the perceptions coming from the present council are accurate because I don’t have an insider’s view or information,” Yukimura said. “All I can say is that when I was mayor, I didn’t pay enough attention to building my relationship with the council. Building a relationship requires good communication that builds trust.”
She recalled one event during Hurricane ‘Iniki recovery where she needed council approval for restructuring building codes. Yukimura remembers the meeting lasting until 1 a.m., but it gave the council the opportunity to ask questions and for the administration to come together on the code.
“Good communication on the part of the mayor means conferring with councilmembers, where possible, prior to taking action, explaining one’s reasons for the actions taken and listening and responding to council’s concerns and perspectives,” she said.
“The council also has a responsibility to try to understand the mayor’s position before reacting or opposing his or her proposal or approach. That requires a lot of honest and respectful dialogue.”
Nearly every day, the mayor has shared videos underscoring the county’s COVID-19 response, providing information to residents. “Our highest priority throughout this pandemic has been to communicate with the public the best that we are able to ensure they receive timely updates, and we have done daily video updates since our first positive case,” Kawakami said.
Because these videos take precedent, elected officials are receiving the updates concurrently with the public. Councilmember Luke Evslin noted that there have been times he’s learned about new rules via the newspaper the next day.
“I fully acknowledge that many times our legislators are made aware of this information at the same time as the general public, and I appreciate their patience with us and their ongoing support,” Kawakami said, affirming that he and his staff are always available for council discussion when requested. “I also respect their request for more timely communication, and they have my commitment to improve in that area.”
Frustrated Kagawa said he would like more checks and balances.
“The mayor has the final call, but if we’re going to be yelled at by the public for not helping them, at least include us in coming up with some of the decisions,” Kagawa said.
“I know it’s a lot easier not to have people like me saying ‘no’ and everybody else saying ‘yes’ and Felicia wanting to talk for five minutes and nobody wanting to wait five minutes. It’s a lot easier, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing that deserves thinking outside of the box and allowing the legislative side to bring what we have.”
Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.