Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran
A few days before All Hallow’s Eve, some people held a rally announcing a petition drive to recall Maui Mayor Michael Victorino. Under the Maui County Charter, in the next month or so, they will need to collect at least 21,586 signatures, or 20 percent of the 107,930 Maui voters registered in the last general election.
I like Mike. My sister worked for Mike when she was fresh out of Cannon’s Business School. Since I like his wife Joycelyn, I even can ignore the fact he passed on tapping my 92-year-old mother for a cushy County job after the 2018 election.
A former Mayor reputedly built the Kalana O Maui on High Street so his office would be the top spot in the tallest building on the island. Mayors are both the top administrator of county services and the top cheerleader for Maui Nui’s community. The office has magnificent views but being Mayor is not a cushy job, especially when an international public health crisis upends normal life. As the top County official, Mike gets easily blamed for all sorts of complaints.
The recall proponents announced a variety of gripes against the Mayor, ranging from the longtime fight over East Maui water for taro growers to the County doggedly pursuing a U.S. Supreme Court appeal in the West Maui injection well lawsuit. Others had bones to pick about how he handled local responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including general accusations about lack of transparency in spending federal COVID funds despite daily press briefings updating County activities. He also got painted with blame for the limits imposed or approved by Governor David Ige regarding State and County business lockdowns and capacity limitations, mask and testing requirements for travel, and State Department of Education policies on vaccination and social distancing requirements for school athletes and spectator attendance.
California held a recall election in September, spurred in part by California Governor Gavin Newsom’s management of the pandemic in the Golden State. Newsom emphatically defeated a recall aimed at kicking him out of office early, a contest the Democrat governor framed as part of a national battle for his party’s values in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and continued threats from “Trumpism.”
For thirty days, the petition collectors must collect 21,586 valid voter signatures. If they fall short, they get one last shot at getting enough good signatures for ten days. If they do not get enough signatures in the original petition or a supplemental petition, no new petition for the recall can be filed for a year.
Depending on if and when the petition is certified by the County Clerk and presented to the County Council, an election would be held no less than sixty (60) days nor more than ninety (90) days of the Council receiving the certified petition. If enough Maui registered voters sign a petition—for whatever complaint they have against Mike—then the County Council would need to schedule an election to recall the Mayor sometime between February and March of 2022. Of course, that would require the County to pay the expenses for a special election, including printing 100,000-plus ballots and mailing those ballots to Maui’s registered voters, and the costs of running the election and tallying the results. (In Kaua‘i where there were 47,253 registered voters for the 2020 general election, the County Clerk estimates it will cost $475,000 to hold a special election on December 18, 2021 to replace the Prosecuting Attorney who resigned to take another job on the mainland.)
The recall supporters appear undaunted by the fact elections are already scheduled nine months from now, with the Primary Election set for Saturday, August 13, 2022 and the General Election on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. The Office of Elections website indicates voters receive their ballots in the mail for the Primary Election by July 26, 2022 and for the General Election by October 21, 2022.
If the proposed recall petition was launched later, the question could have been included in the scheduled elections. For example, a certified petition presented to the Council by May 16 could be included with the Primary Election ballot, or a recall proposal completed by August 11 included on the General Election ballot. Added to the already scheduled elections would have been helpful in meeting one Charter hurdle for recall elections. Given historical election trends, holding a special election early next year makes recalling Mike challenging. The Charter also states if less than 50 percent of the registered voters vote in any recall election, the recall fails regardless of the outcome of that vote.
In the 2020 General Election, 71,653 or 66.4 percent of the registered voters participated. However, only 43,954 or 42.7 percent of the then-102,835 registrants voted in the Primary Election. And 2020—the first election held almost entirely by mail—proved to be one of the highest turnouts in recent elections.
Recalls are rarely pursued in this State and only succeeded once.
A 2015 proposal to recall Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi did not get very far—no signatures were submitted after an effort was announced.
In 1985, three Honolulu City Councilmembers—George G. Akahane, Toraki Matsumoto and Rudolph Pacarro—lost after joining former Democratic Mayor Frank Fasi in switching from being Democrats to Republicans (and taking over the City Council). They lost even after popular GOP President Ronald Reagan endorsed them. With approximately 60 percent turnout, Matsumoto lost 7,896 – 8,854, Pacarro fell short 6,539 – 6,620 and Akahane was recalled 6,849 – 12,052. But that Honolulu recall effort took place when County races were still partisan affairs.
We will know in a few weeks whether Mike will face the voters early. Even if a recall is held, I like Mike’s chances of surviving. A few days after the recall effort was announced, the Mayor was being Mayoral passing out Halloween cheer to local residents and children at Keōpūolani Park. And given the various reasons listed by signature collectors, if Mike does well in the recall, does his possible Mayoral opponents have second thoughts about taking him on in the Fall?
Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran practices law in Wailuku. He currently represents Central Maui in the Hawai‘i State Senate after being appointed by former Governor Neil Abercrombie. He previously served two terms as State Representative from Kahului/Pā‘ia after being appointed by former Governor Linda Lingle. He worked for former Governor Ben Cayetano and former Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa.