Two County Councilmen vying for the mayor’s seat for Kauai County are promising to tackle scarce affordable housing and traffic congestion, which are among the main concerns of isle residents.
Mayoral candidates Derek Kawakami and Mel Rapozo each said they would improve the quality of life for constituents facing a growing population and housing shortage.
Kawakami, 41, said he would explore turning existing infrastructure into possible projects for affordable housing. “We have a backlog of infrastructure,” he said.
He pledged to look into revitalization of the urban core and using infrastructure subsidy incentives to create more affordable housing.
More than 60 percent of Kauai’s jobs are in Lihue, while less than 25 percent of housing stock in Lihue, Kawakami said. “I truly believe in our investment in the urban core and with the council recently increasing the density in Lihue, it will provide a tool for more housing units for local people. It’s going to stimulate the economy as well.”
Kawakami also supports creating communities where people can work, live and play.”
“That’s really the big picture toward traffic alleviation,” he said. Residing near their jobs and schools as well as investing in an infrastructure where residents can walk or bike would not only reduce traffic congestion but also help promote healthy living, he said.
Kawakami also aims to look into adjusting county work hours and adding more bus routes to ease peak-hour traffic. “Public transportation is such a key important part of our integrated traffic solution. We’re looking at a holistic approach,” he said.
In his first bid for the mayor’s seat, Kawakami said he wants to improve the quality of life for families, including his own. “I have two children and I want them to be able to prosper.”
Born in Hilo and raised on Kauai, Kawakami, comes from a family of retailers who own and operate Big Save, Menehune Food Mart, Kauai Kitchen, Kauai Kookie and other businesses. He is married to Monica Kawakami, and is the nephew of the late House Speaker Richard Kawakami and retired state Rep. Bertha Kawakami.
Kawakami first served on the Kauai County Council from 2008 to mid-2011. Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed him as state representative of House District 14 after the seat was vacated by former Rep. Hermina Morita, who was appointed to serve as chairwoman of the State Public Utilities Commission. He returned to the County Council in 2016.
If elected mayor, Kawakami said, “We are going to do it with integrity, honesty and openness.”
Rapozo’s career in public service started at age 19 as a police officer with the Kauai Police Department. He served for 12 years as a patrol officer and detective. During the span of his law enforcement career he also was active in the community, including as a coach for Special Olympics.
To address the housing shortage, Rapozo, 54, said he would support implementing a comprehensive plan to help provide affordable housing for constituents.
Finding solutions for affordable housing is personal for Rapozo. His 22-year-old daughter and 26-year-old son were born and raised on Kauai but now reside in Oregon because of Hawaii’s high cost of living, he said. “That’s a very motivating factor. We have to do something differently.”
He also envisions creating workforce housing for public employees and service industries in proximity to their jobs. Rapozo pledged to pursue federal subsidies to provide affordable housing for families, including kupuna who are on a fixed income.
The county’s Agency on Elderly Affairs has done a great job with housing for kupuna, he said. “Just doing more of those projects, that’s where we need to be,” he added.
Rapozo also plans to work with developers on inclusionary housing programs in an effort to create housing stock and affordable homes.
He stressed his commitment to clamping down on illegal vacation rentals. With the increasing number of visitors on the island, enforcement is necessary to protect neighborhoods, he said. “We cannot compromise our residents’ way of life. I’m not going to stand for that.”
Rapozo noted the county needs to focus on infrastructure and take a break from promoting tourism “so we can adequately take care of residents and visitors.”
Of traffic congestion, Rapozo said he would work with the hotel industry to create new bus routes to accommodate visitors. He also proposed collaborating with employers on shuttles and routes to accommodate workers.
This is Rapozo’s second bid for the mayor’s seat. He first ran in the 2008 special election following Mayor Brian Baptiste’s death. Constituents elected Bernard Carvalho Jr. to serve the remaining two years of Baptiste’s term. Carvalho has since served two four-year terms as Kauai County mayor and was a contender for the lieutenant governor’s seat.
Born and raised on Kauai, Rapozo, who is married to Patsy Rapozo, has served on the county council from 2002 to 2008. After a two-year break, he returned to the council in 2010 and is the current Council chairman. In addition to his county council duties, Rapozo works full-time as a night auditor at Timbers Kauai.
If elected mayor, Rapozo said the constituents’ best interests will be at the forefront. “As long as I’m alive, I will fight for this county.”