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Former mayor of Hawaii County 'wasn't afraid of controversy'

By Leila Fujimori


Former Mayor Herbert Matayoshi led Hawaii County during a time of controversy — when resort development of the Kohala Coast competed with residents' prime recreational areas and Native Hawaiian activism was rising.

Though he had a reserved personality and leadership style, "he wasn't afraid of controversy," recalled state Sen. Malama Solomon.

"There were a lot of different priorities and trying to get those priorities straight wasn't always easy," Solomon said. "Some people thought he was procrastinating. … He just wanted to be sure things were pono, things were right."

Matayoshi, Hawaii County's second elected mayor, died Monday in Honolulu. He was 82.

Matayoshi served on the Board of Supervisors, which preceded the County Council, from 1969 to 1974, and as mayor from 1974 to 1984. He resigned to run for state Senate, but lost to Richard Matsuura.

During his tenure, a lot of environmental and recreational concerns were being raised, as well as Native Hawaiians' concerns over the expansion of the Hilo Airport, which sits on the edge of a Department of Hawaiian Home Lands community, Solomon said.

"I think he stood by what he believed, and he was very courageous," said daughter Kathryn Matayoshi, now state schools superintendent. She recalls her father related how protesters at the airport wanted to talk with him.

"He said, ‘Shoots, let's go,' " she said.

"He set an example through his actions," she said, including getting his executive master's of business administration degree while mayor.

"He was so busy, but he was still trying to learn something new," she said.

Former Mayor Lorraine Inouye said that because Matayoshi came from a business background, many did not see his environmental side and that he opposed having so many telescopes on Mauna Kea.

He also opposed the development of Prince Kuhio Mall, she said, because he worried it would take business away from downtown Hilo.

Jack Keppeler, who worked as managing director under Matayoshi, said he focused on delivering police, fire and emergency medical services to the community, using an efficient model and doing it in a fiscally conservative way.

He was "light years ahead," integrating services, "so they responded as a team," he said.

"Herbert foresaw that and tried to improve Hawaii County … to do it in the most effective way in a jurisdiction that is huge but sparsley populated."

"As a result of his upbringing, he was sensitive to people, he had a great heart and tried to listen to people. He was not splashy. He was charming in a very personable way," Keppeler said, recalling how he spoke to people for hours on an individual basis, which was well-suited for the time.

"I think he made a tremendous contribution in a vital time, both on the Council and subsequently as the administrator," he said. "Most people in Hawaii County thought he was a heck of a guy. He was always very well-received and accepted."

A Hilo boy at heart, Herbert Matayoshi shared time between his Hilo and Kahala homes.

Matayoshi is also survived by wife Mary; sons Jerold, Ronald and Eric; brother James; sister Edith Harano; 11 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

A celebration of life in Honolulu will be held at 6 p.m. July 26, visitation 4 p.m., at Borthwick Mortuary, mauka chapel. A celebration of life in Hilo will be held at Church of the Holy Cross at 4 p.m. Aug. 15, visitation at 2:30 p.m.

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