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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Incumbent viewed as take-charge kind of guy

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa and wife, Ann, volunteered at the recent Alzheimer's Association Memory Walk in Kahului. Ann Arakawa is a Maui Community College math instructor.

CHRISTIE WILSON | The Honolulu Advertiser

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KAHULUI, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa traces his involvement in politics back to the mid-1980s when he was working at a county wastewater treatment plant, where an inefficient screen-ing mechanism often forced employees to climb up 30 feet to unblock a greasy, smelly chute.

When Arakawa informed his supervisor of the problem, he said he was told to keep quiet and "don't make waves."

"That really burned me up to have someone in that position to care so little for our safety," said Arakawa, 55.

The experience inspired him to become involved in union leadership and later to run for County Council, winning election in 1994 on his third try. Arakawa said he joined the Republican Party because he felt the Democrats were arrogant and "marched in lockstep to take orders."

"I wanted to change the system that was there. My whole goal is to make the system better," he said.

When he felt the council wasn't doing enough to address the major issues of water, roads and affordable housing, Arakawa decided to run for mayor. "I wanted to make change in a big way and the only way to do that was in the top position," he said.

The Kahului councilman lost on his first try in 1998 but returned in 2002 to upset Mayor James "Kimo" Apana. Now nearing the end of his first term, Arakawa remains dead-serious about bringing change to Maui County maybe too serious, if that's possible.

Arakawa is a regular guy but also a bit of a "wonk," which the Random House dictionary describes as "a person who studies a subject or issue in an excessively assiduous and thorough manner." And in assuming the role of head problem-solver, some critics, including his opponent Charmaine Tavares, say Arakawa has too often left the council and the community out of the loop.

The mayor does not apologize for his take-charge style, contrasting it with Tavares' promise to govern by consensus, which he said is a recipe for inaction.

"I'm thinking, 'How long will it take to get the job done and how to do it.' She needs to have everything mapped out to the 'nth' degree before it can happen," Arakawa said.

Heading into Tuesday's general election, Arakawa is in danger of losing to his former council colleague, who finished atop a nine-candidate field in the September nonpartisan primary and has picked up some key union endorsements and the support of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.

Arakawa, who has the backing of Gov. Linda Lingle, attributed his opponent's strong showing to her "nice personality" and articulateness. "People didn't really look at the issues. Charmaine can talk in sound bites, but sound bites do not translate into getting things done," he said.

The mayor said he has gotten things done, such as dealing with a plague of abandoned vehicles, establishing a sewage pump-out station at Ma'alaea Harbor, expanding public transportation, improving the Upcountry water system, launching Geographic Information System mapping that will increase efficiency, hiring the county's first environmental coordinator and supporting efforts to control invasive species.

On the affordable-housing front, Arakawa said administration efforts to work with developers will generate more than 3,000 affordable-housing units in the next couple of years, with thousands more in the pipeline.

But the mayor also said that some voters and council members, including Tavares, are just too impatient. The council is drafting an affordable-housing requirement for new developments that Arakawa and some builders claim will cripple the housing industry.

"The developers are making progress. All of these (projects) are in the process," the mayor said. "People have to be realistic. It's not going to be resolved overnight."

Tavares countered that developers should be subject to a formal affordable-housing policy that promises homes for working families, since not all the projects cited by Arakawa can be expected to materialize.

The candidates also disagree on Arakawa's move to centralize the county water system. "By combining all the systems we'll have better water management. We can drought-proof the entire community," he said.

Human services and healthcare are two other issues dear to the mayor, who spent years as a caregiver to his late mother. In addition to supporting improvements at Maui Memorial Medical Center, Arakawa was an ardent backer of the Malulani proposal to build a second hospital on the island, and helped revive helicopter air ambulance services in the county.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.