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2022 candidate interview: Richard Bissen for Maui County mayor

richard bissen maui county
Courtesy Richard Bissen
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Richard "Rick" Bissen, retired 2nd Circuit Court chief judge and mayoral candidate for Maui County.

One of the political races getting attention around the state is the contest for the Maui County mayor’s office. Incumbent Michael "Mike" Victorino and retired Judge Richard "Rick" Bissen were the two top vote-getters in the primary election, with Bissen outpolling Victorino by 1,704 votes.

Bissen retired as a Circuit Court judge at the end of last year and, along with his opponent, said housing is the biggest issue facing residents. He wants to create what he calls a “homeowner’s exemption.” Those who live in their primary residence would receive a $200,000 reduction in the appraised value of the home — therefore lowering the property tax.

Bissen told HPR’s Bill Dorman the idea of his five-point housing plan is to think locally — and not focus just on price.

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RICHARD BISSEN, RETIRED JUDGE AND MAYORAL CANDIDATE: We want the focus to be on who's buying the home and who's living in the home, not how much the home cost. Because if you sell a home that's affordable to somebody who's not from here, you really haven't done anything to help our local population. So our first of the five-point plan is to take an inventory of appropriate land to build. Because what we know on Maui is the two things that stifle homeownership, or our issue here, is where to build it and who to sell it to. So I think we addressed the where to build it by having an inventory of lands that the county puts in the infrastructure, and you're hearing everybody say this today that hasn't been saying this in the past, the county puts in the infrastructure, the roads, the water, the sewer, again, to drive prices down, require that they have a homeowner's exemption. But here's the important part. You can sell that home a week after you buy it, a year after you buy it, 20 years after you buy it, but you must sell it to someone else who qualifies for a homeowner's exemption. That's how we keep those homes in the local resident.

The point on the county paying for the infrastructure, how would that be funded?

Through county monies. The county does that now, we have an affordable housing fund that our charter requires 3% of the budget we put into that. This past year the council — they can go higher — I think they allotted 4% or 4.5%. So there's an affordable housing fund that can be used for several purposes. But the infrastructure that the county puts in is pretty common in most other places, most municipalities. We're one of those rare places that we were able to convince the developers to put in the roads, the sewer, the water, the schools, the parks, the shopping centers, in exchange for granting them their permit to build. And that's what's driven our prices up because all of that is going to translate into the cost of the home. So if we're truly trying to get local, kamaʻāina people into homes — that's really what we're trying to do — then we have to be as creative as possible to drive the home prices down. But that's our long-term plan. Our immediate plan is accessory dwelling units, ADUs, cottages, ʻohanas. The key to having an accessory dwelling unit, and under a Bissen Administration in our first 180 days, we're going to approve 100 permits. The way we're going to do so is by having pre-approved plans — studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom — if you choose one of those pre-approved plans, and you're hooking up to the county water and sewer, we're gonna approve those permits for you and your property. That's the quickest, cheapest, easiest way to get houses for our local people — is by allowing those cottages to be built. We have not been taking advantage of that. And I guess the key I want to say, Bill, is existing infrastructure. Existing infrastructure is the key, taking advantage of what's already there.

You talk about infrastructure needed. Part of that infrastructure is professional. Do you have confidence that there's the professional staffing ability to deal with the permitting of the project that you're talking about?

I think the professionals are going to come from the ones who build it. What we're lacking, and I guess we have a shortfall just like the state, the country and the world, you know, it's an employee's market right now, I guess you would say. I mean, we're just trying to get bodies for some of our positions. We're 100 police officers short in our county, and I'm certain we have openings in our different county departments. You know, professionalism comes from training and experience, but it also comes from expectation. And I think that has to come from the leadership where we demand it and require it. We got to put the service back into customer service. So we can do a better job. We can always do a better job, and again, not pointing the finger at any individual or any department. But again, professionalism starts with service and an attitude that when you walk through the door, how can I help you get your permit? Not how can I stall you from getting your permit? Or, you know, do I have to do this? I mean, can you come back on another day? I mean, of course, they're going to be frustrated. And that's going to be their perception of interaction with county government. So of course, I think it starts with leadership, as I said, and that's where I come in.

One other area arguably requiring a creative approach — on tourism, no other county in the state is as dependent on tourism as Maui. Destination Management Plans are in place, you've said that you support those. But beyond those plans, what would you do to balance the economic benefits of tourism with the living conditions of local residents?

Yeah, I mean, clearly the tourist industry is our No. 1 economic driver, no question about it. It contributes, you know, probably over 50% of our tax revenue. I'm told 80% of every dollar spent is somehow connected to the visitor industry. But we also understand that that same business also can have impacts on our infrastructure, on our resources, and of course, our quality of life for our locals. So, you know, there has been talk in the Maui Nui Destination Plan of regenerative tourism, educating our tourists in better ways, having them help and give back to the community when they come here. You know, the buzz used to be I recall, eco-tourism, then it became sustainable tourism. And I guess the latest version is regenerative. I get the concept, not 100% sure how it would be implemented. But, you know, we may have tourists, especially return tourists who would feel like working in a loʻi or working in a fish pond or doing something on their vacation more than just laying on the beach. And so I think that's a good approach. But managing our tourist population is going to require, for example, what you folks do in Honolulu where you have a reservation system for say Hanauma Bay. We have reservations that are required for Haleakalā National Park, very, very popular place to visit. But I think when people know "well if I go that time of year, I won't be able to see the sunrise, I won't be able to get there. So let me alter my trip, my plans so that I can make a reservation and then you know, we can fly there during that time."

Maui County Council's moratorium on construction of new hotels, how do you feel about that approach?

I prefer incentives rather than moratoriums, just as a general principle. I understood what I think the goal was, that if you build fewer hotel rooms, that less people will come because they won't have somewhere to stay. That has not proven to be the case because we have so many vacation rentals. Now the good news is they have put a cap on vacation rentals. Okay, let's step back for one second, you gotta kind of know the history of Maui. When our mayor was Elmer Cravalho and he built Kāʻanapali Resort, his idea was the tourists will come and they will stay in the resort area. And of course, that hasn't happened. But even the vacation rentals were supposed to be limited to those areas as well. And we now know with the evolution that, you know, people can have a vacation rental in any neighborhood, including residential — that's where the issue comes home to roost because now you put all that pressure on, again, infrastructure and resources and then people get upset.

You've talked about developing alternative industries away from an over-dependence on tourism. What specifically would you do in that area for Maui County?

I think for us, we recognize that we're not a manufacturing society here on Maui. We would more be a knowledge base, right? We went through agriculture with sugar cane and pineapple, we went through tourism or tourists, and now we're at that stage where we want to find other ways to keep our locals home. What we learned during the pandemic is how many people came from around the world to do their business here because they were all doing it virtually. They were able to do their business on our island. We had such an influx. And when you would talk to people, even local people who returned home during the pandemic saying — well, I had a friend work for NASA — he said, "Oh, I can do my work from here on my computer." So why can't we do that? Why can't we just have businesses here on Maui that start with that? So the knowledge base I'm talking about is working virtual.

What would you bring to the mayor's position when it comes to leadership that you feel isn't there now?

Well, first of all, I think active leadership. I think leaders should meet with their team. I think it's sort of a gold standard to have weekly meetings with your, in this case, directors or your leadership team. So I think mostly my leadership skills of collaborating, decision making, being bold, being balanced. I think I attract a lot of different types of the community. This is truly a nonpartisan race. For me, I've never registered for a political party. Although I'm a political science major, I never had any interest — never needed to. So I feel like I attract people from all sides who just want good governance. They just want someone with no strings attached, who has a history of making good decisions for the community, for our community at large.

Why are you running now? What led you to challenge Mayor Victorino?

We're in a crisis. You know, I spent 35 years in government service, the exact 34 years and eight months when I retired from the bench at the end of 2021. And again, rather than hang up the skills or put them in a box and on a shelf, the leadership skills that I've attained and that I've had a chance to work in real-life situation, I felt that the county could use better leadership, leadership for the mid-management. And I mentioned to you, you know, we want a program — and mayor says that his directors meet once a month with the managing director — I don't see that as active leadership, I see that as very passive leadership. All the teams I've been on whether I was the leader, or I was the follower, you know, weekly meetings with key members is how you keep informed and how you prevent things from going from bad to worse and how you head things off. And so for me, what I'm accustomed to is using leadership in an active way. I'm running because of my three grandsons. They're 10, 7 and 1. And while I never thought twice about being able to live here on Maui when I grew up, or on Molokaʻi or Lānaʻi, I now think it's questionable. So many people are leaving our state and our community, our county. And that's because they can't afford to live here and stay here. And I'm going to do everything in my power to try to reverse that. I think we owe it to our young generation and those coming up to leave this place as good as we had it. It's almost impossible to predict that but I think we owe it to the next generation. And that's why I'm running.

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Our interview with candidate Michael Victorino aired on Wednesday, Oct. 26.

The Conversation is also interviewing candidates for some county council districts, Kauaʻi County mayor, the U.S. House of Representatives, lieutenant governor, and governor. Click here for more.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 25, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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