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2017 Review: A Year in the Life of Alan Arakawa

Photo: Ryan Piros
The best thing you could say about Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa in 2017 was that he clearly loved his job and was willing to give it his undivided attention 24/7.

Last year, he was ubiquitous, which means he was everywhere all the time. His honor gave new meaning to the scriptural quote, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

And to be perfectly frank, they didn’t have to be gathered in his name. As long as they were gathered, he would find them.

The three-term county chief executive was on the radio, on cable TV, in the newspaper, and on the web (Ask the Mayor), and then of course, there was the Alan Arakawa who appeared live and in-person at every blessing, baby luau, pig roast, or political event 52 weeks a year.

Whatever one might say about him, you had to believe he was diligent and intended to work every crowd all the time, a veritable one-man band.

The second best thing about Arakawa was his unflappable wife, Ann Arakawa, a college math instructor who often joined him on his rounds. She was as warm and gracious as he was abrasive. She too came in for some criticism in October when a complaint to the Campaign Spending Commission alleged she contacted nonprofit and community groups to get them not to cooperate with the commission’s two-year investigation into the mayor’s campaign expenditures from Nov. 5, 2014, to Dec. 31, 2016.

Though it was was hard to think ill of Mrs. Arakawa, her husband’s “shoot first, ask questions later” style was an entirely different story.

His honor started the year off dropping a BS bomb at the Jan. 2 council meeting while serving as the acting chair during an organizing session.

(Arakawa’s comment comes at 1:38 of the video in response to remarks by Elle Cochran about the ever-popular Corporation Counsel Pat Wong.)

Tongues wagged, but the tsk-tsking was nothing compared to the uproar In February when he brushed off concerns about the movement of rocks in the post-flood stream bed of Iao Valley.

He told the Hawaiʻi News Now Sunrise TV program that “there’s no such thing as sacred rocks.”

That assessment proved to be not only a tad hasty, but a throwaway line that riled Hawaiian cultural practitioners across the board. An apology, sort of, was not long in coming, but the bad feeling lingered and completely overshadowed the administration’s quick response to the initial emergency.

In February, the buzz was that he was thinking about running for higher office statewide. That rumor gained credibility when it was confirmed that the longtime “nonpartisan” mayor (who was formerly a Republican) had switched his party affiliation and registered as a Democrat.

No sooner did the huhu about the “sacred rocks” die down that in March, he recommended closing the county’s only public golf course in Waihee. This was a move that brought shrieks of protest from local golfers young and old. The furor was instantaneous and in the end, the public links survived another year, but no thanks to the head honcho.

In April, he hosted a $1,000 a plate fundraiser for his own “Kokua Fund,” the very same fund that seems to be under continuing investigation.

Those expecting Arakawa to announce for higher office did not have long to wait.

In May, he announced his candidacy for Lt. Governor on Hawaii News Now Sunrise.

The Star-Advertiser reported that “Arakawa, 65, has served as Maui County mayor from 2002 and 2006 and was re-elected in 2011 and 2014. (He) told local media that he had considered retiring, but he sees a great need for better leadership in state government.”

But that plan didn’t last long.

By November, he sent his supporters an e-mail saying that he intended to seek the Kahului seat on the Maui County Council in 2018 (The seat will be vacated by Don Guzman, who has already announced his intentions to run for Maui Mayor).

In November, there was Arakawa on the front page again. This time it was for firing the county’s water director, David Taylor. The act seemed inexplicable to most observers as the two had worked side-by-side for over 20 years. Taylor was finishing up his second term as an Arakawa appointee when the mayor unceremoniously ditched him for reasons that are still not entirely clear.

Arakawa put Taylor on paid administrative leave, but the mayor could not terminate him without the consent of the council. That was an action the council refused to take. In early December, they voted unanimously that they wanted Taylor to stay. Arakawa’s most recent statements on the subject indicate that he intends to keep Taylor on paid leave permanently and fill the slot with someone else despite the council vote.

“My way or the highway,” or so it seems.

For a guy who started life as a county wastewater treatment plant operator, Alan Arakawa has had an impressive run. His political career includes successive terms on the county council and multiple terms as mayor. On one hand, he’s been applauded as a tireless get-it-done kind of a guy who is never too busy to lend an ear on local concerns. On the other, he’s been endlessly criticized for his frequent cronyism and desire to put his hand-picked candidates in public office.

The plans for an Arakawa dynasty have so far not materialized as none of his team has managed to win at the polls.

It’s too early to say what 2018 will bring for this high profile local politician who, like a pop star, seems to perpetually reinvent himself, but love him or hate him, underestimate him at your peril.

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About Susan Halas

Susan Halas is a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch. She has followed Hawaii politics since 1976 when she moved to the Valley Isle. She was formerly a staff writer for the Maui News as well as other local print and digital publications.

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