The new chairperson of the County Council aims to work together.
Vanessa Joy Domingo
In mid-December 2019, Kelly King announced her resignation as chairperson of the Maui County Council in order to lead the new committee on climate change and spend more time with her family. A week later, in a 7–2 vote, Councilmember Alice Lee was elected as the Council’s new Chairperson.
The Council chamber is anything but new to Councilmember Alice Lee. She sits comfortably in this environment, eager to continue serving Maui County as she has done before. Lee was a former Maui County Councilmember from 1989–1999 (including time as a former Council Chair in 1995) and continued her work as a Director of the Department of Housing and Human Concerns from 1999 through 2006. By then, she thought her career in Maui politics had concluded. However, after 12 years in “retirement,” she found her way back towards the Maui County Council when she announced her intent to seek the Wailuku seat in order to bring unity and collaboration back to the council.
Despite her role as the new Council Chairperson, the agenda for the Council hasn’t changed. “The Council’s priorities are pretty much the same as when we first started the term one year ago.” says Lee. “And that is—we are committed to providing more workforce housing. That’s one of the top priorities. The second priority is to reduce the amount of homelessness on Maui because that’s a horrible problem that we are dealing with and have been dealing with for years. But we need to dial up our efforts. And then of course, ensure that our economy is stable, so people have employment opportunities. When we talk about priorities, it’s really the community’s priorities.”
The changeover into her new role was unexpected but she stands ready to take the helm and lead the Council. “Our residents feel that we have fallen behind and they are correct,” Lee states. “We have fallen behind in providing enough infrastructure but that also ties into the amount of revenues we have.” To remedy this, Vice Chair Rawlins-Fernandez put together a temporary investigative group to look at revisions in the tax code. “One of the things we’ve come up with is that we will be using tiers—particularly with owner occupant and non-owner occupant groups to ensure that the less disadvantaged folks on Maui aren’t contributing as much higher percentage of their income towards taxes. We are not finished with our work in the area of tax reform but we really don’t start making our decisions until April or May. We’ve done a lot of outreach to get input and ideas from residents.”
Other projects on hand include addressing the increasing rate of the visitor industry and tourism and the formation of the new Committee of Climate Change and Resiliency. Lee hopes to ask the tourist industry to effectively use grants to educate tourists that visit Maui to practice alertness and safety. At times warning signs posted on Maui’s beaches go unheeded. “People tend to not read the signs. It becomes very dangerous when they ignore all the warning signs because our waters can be very unpredictable. Things happen in the ocean. We believe the visitor industry is beginning to step up to the responsibility of educating people that are coming through to the islands.” She does agree that there is a need for Ocean Safety officers to be allocated to more popular areas but the County has been restricted to what they can afford to have on staff. For the future, she would like to avoid the County being sued by tourists that choose not to be mindful of the County’s ocean safety warnings. She knows, however, that this would be a matter for the State to decide.
Lee wants to support every committee chair to ensure their success. Her new obligations will include overseeing the Office of Council Services and the Office of the County Clerk. “My goals there are to ensure that these two major offices have the resources they need, the goals and objectives they need to achieve what we’re responsible for.” With the new system of mail election ballots being implemented in the upcoming months, she anticipates that there will be much preparation necessary to support the Office of the County Clerk to transition Maui residents. “That’ll be something that will take up a lot of our time in terms of educating the public, training, being prepared for the new method of voting. In the long run, it’ll be easier for everybody but old habits die hard. Some people prefer going to the precinct. Hopefully, they’ll get accustomed to using the mail-in ballots since it’ll save them a lot of time. Especially on rainy days.” What she has noticed from her past involvement in the 1990s in comparison to her involvement now is that community participation has decreased. “It’s a part of the change in generations. My parents’ generation, my generation—we didn’t take things for granted as much. Today’s youth, they do. And they don’t have to expend much effort and they get stuff, you know?” She hopes that younger generations will come to realize the importance of voting. “There’s that disconnect but I wish young people would be more involved. I guess we have to change our ways to encourage feedback from young people. The older ones like us, need to observe and adjust. There’s no way that [they] can relate to our experiences. We need to relate to their experiences and figure out ways to make the voting more interesting, relevant, and connect the dots for them to see.”
For her involvement in the Filipino community—she plans to continue her support of the Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Annual Scholarship Golf Tournament. “Most of the time, I play in the tournament unless I have prior commitments. That is one fun event that I always look forward to.” Her hopes are to continue her work to benefit the Filipinos of Maui and the Maui community at large. “We all need the same thing. Housing, good, steady jobs. They all need the government to provide infrastructure.” She shares with me how she personally aims to represent all the different cultures of Maui by learning greetings of “Good morning,” and “Good afternoon,” in different languages, including Tagalog and Visayan. “My intention is to ensure that everyone is represented.”
When asked about her working relationship with Mayor Michael Victorino, Lee says, “We’ve been friends for many years. Although we don’t agree on a variety of issues, he and I have a very good, positive working relationship.” In reference to the County Council’s vote to override the Mayor’s veto of a real property tax reform bill that would set new tax classifications, they still upheld professionalism and positivity. “After that, I went to have snacks with him. He knows I have my reasons and I know he has his reasons. That’s fine. We did that, so … next!” She indicates that being productive means setting priorities. “Figure out steps to get from point A to B and proceed. You’re going to run into a few speed bumps along the way but that’s okay.” There are a few challenges that she anticipates but what she looks forward to is working together in a cohesive and enthusiastic way with the County Council. “I am very confident that we can reach that point and not always agree but keep moving forward. I think that’s the key to being successful. To work together and have a positive mental attitude. And you will succeed.”
Vanessa Joy Domingo is a graduate of Maui High School and is currently attending University of Hawaii Maui College. She is employed with Coldwell Banker – Wailea Village as a Realtor and was the 2018 Miss Maui Filipina. When she has free time, she loves to go fishing, go to the gym and practice aerial silks. She volunteers her time throughout the community with the Maui Filipino Community Council, Binhi at Ani, Read Aloud America, and Maui High School Foundation. She recently married Mark Domingo and enjoyed their honeymoon aboard a cruise ship to Mexico. She has decided that cruise ships are probably one of the best ways to travel since food is accessible 24/7.