Aloha, 2016: It was a year of pCards, unwelcomed outbreaks, lava and more

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As we ring out 2016 and ring in 2017, it’s difficult to sum up the past year, which witnessed the election of a president best known for firing B-list celebrities on television, and the deaths of a mind-boggling number of the famous and powerful.

As we ring out 2016 and ring in 2017, it’s difficult to sum up the past year, which witnessed the election of a president best known for firing B-list celebrities on television, and the deaths of a mind-boggling number of the famous and powerful.

A short list of those taking their final curtain calls include former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn, sports greats Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer and Gordie Howe, actors Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, Alan Rickman, Alan Thicke, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Florence Henderson, musicians David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, George Michael and Merle Haggard, record producer and “5th Beatle” Sir George Martin, CBS newsman Morley Safer, “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee, former first lady Nancy Reagan, Janet Reno, the first woman to be U.S. attorney general, U.S. Rep. Mark Takai of Hawaii, and Cuban strongman Fidel Castro.

On Hawaii Island, those we’ve lost include two sitting state legislators — Sen. Gil Kahele, who was succeeded by son, Kai, and Rep. Clift Tsuji, whose successor is yet to be appointed. Others include Takashi “Taka” Domingo, who represented Hamakua on the County Council for two decades, Evelyn Miyashiro, co-founder and retired owner of Cafe 100, Hawaiian cultural practitioner, preservationist and educator Pele Hanoa, country singer and musical patriarch the Rev. Ernie Cruz Sr., whose musician sons Ernie Cruz Jr. and Guy Cruz also died in 2016, and prominent business and community leader Barry Mizuno, a University of Hawaii regent until shortly before his death.

Now that we’ve acknowledged some who passed on during the Earth’s past orbit around the sun, here are the top 10 most significant Big Island news stories of 2016, as chosen by the Tribune-Herald editorial staff.

1. Kenoi and his pCard

A Hilo jury acquitted then-Mayor Billy Kenoi in November on felony and misdemeanor theft charges and a charge of making a false statement under oath.

The charismatic mayor was indicted in March following a yearlong investigation by the state attorney general’s office after Big Island newspapers reported Kenoi had used his county-issued credit card, known as a purchasing card or “pCard,” at a Honolulu hostess bar.

The state Procurement Office revoked his pCard shortly after the newspaper report. Additional articles disclosed he used the pCard at a second hostess bar, and to purchase personal items such as a surfboard and bicycle.

Kenoi, who admitted to misuse of the card, said he previously thought it was OK to use it for personal expenses if he paid them back. Some reimbursements occurred months or years after the charges were made. A county audit also found Kenoi misued the card.

The criminal charges, however, didn’t include any of the reported purchases. Instead, Deputy Attorney General Kevin Takata focused on bar tabs involving what he called “exorbitant amounts of alcohol,” a stay at a Kohala resort as a wedding gift for Kenoi’s nephew and a $200 lunch with the family of the son of the leader of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Kenoi reimbursed taxpayers for all expenses covered in the criminal charges except the lunch.

Honolulu Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario, who heard the October trial because all Big Island judges recused themselves, threw out three records tampering charges.

The prosecution focused on the timing of reimbursements, claiming Kenoi wouldn’t have made them without media requests for credit card records. Defense attorney Todd Eddins called the requests “markers” to remind the mayor to make the payments.

Kenoi told the jury he “would never do anything fo’ hurt this island, hurt this county” and added “I’m offended to even be accused.”

In his closing argument, Eddins chided prosecutors for pressing charges and for having a “puritanical, prudish, prissy fixation on alcohol.” He told the jury they were “lucky to have” Kenoi as mayor.

Following the trial, Kenoi’s attorneys reached a stipulated agreement with the county Ethics Commission that concluded “the County of Hawaii purchasing card procedures were violated and that it won’t happen again.”

2. TMT battle continues

The long-simmering feud over the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea continued throughout 2016 and might not be resolved in 2017, either.

A contested case hearing over a permit to build the $1.4 billion observatory started Oct. 21 in Hilo with retired Hilo Circuit Judge Riki May Amano presiding over the quasi-judicial proceedings, which are ongoing. The hearing is being held because the state Supreme Court ruled in December 2015 the Board of Land and Natural Resources shouldn’t have approved a permit for an international consortium to build the telescope before the first contested case hearing was held.

Opponents of the project requested Amano be disqualified from hearing the case, citing her nondisclosure of a family membership to the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, which is operated by the University of Hawaii at Hilo, master leaseholder for much of the mountain, as a conflict of interest. Despite UH-Hilo reluctantly joining in the request for Amano’s replacement, the Land Board stood firm on Amano’s appointment.

Earlier this month, Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura ruled orally the state also should have held a contested case for TMT’s sublease for Mauna Kea. E. Kalani Flores, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, appealed the sublease approval after being denied a hearing in 2014. A written ruling was pending as of Dec. 23.

Amano denied a request by opponents to put the permit hearing on hold following Nakamura’s ruling, saying she doesn’t have “a basis to stay” the hearing.

Meanwhile, the TMT International Observatory board intends to resume construction either on Mauna Kea or an alternate site in the Canary Islands in April 2018. A decision on which site to use could occur as early as October, the board’s last scheduled meeting for 2017.

3. Rapid ohia death

A team of scientists at Hilo’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center has isolated two species of Ceratocystis fungus responsible for rapid ohia death, a disease that has affected more than 50,000 acres of ohia forest on the Big Island.

A ban on transporting ohia from Hawaii Island became permanent in November. So far, ROD has not been found in other parts of the state. State officials, as well as researchers studying the disease, attribute the containment to emergency rules instituted by the state Department of Agriculture.

Gov. David Ige earmarked $3.5 million in his biennial budget to help stop ROD as part of a $30 million sustainability initiative, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has allocated $120,000 for ROD response as part of $3.1 million in grants to Hawaii to fight invasive species. Those numbers are less than the $3.6 million a rapid ohia death working group estimates is needed in the first year of a three-year strategic plan by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to combat the fungal disease.

The specter of ROD cast a pall over the 2016 Merrie Monarch hula competition, which instituted a voluntary kapu on ohia lehua, one of hula’s prime adornments.

“It’s said that we cannot use the lehua,” said Nahoku Gaspang, kumu hula of Halau Hula O Kahikilaulani. “In the end, we might not have lehua and palapalai. And future generations might not know what it’s like to wear liko lehua or palapalai if we don’t malama what we have right now.”

4. Peter Boy

The break in a notorious missing-child-turned-murder investigation prosecutors sought for almost two decades came in late April when Peter Kema Sr. and Jaylin Kema were indicted for the murder of their son, Peter Kema Jr., aka “Peter Boy,” who went missing in 1997.

The abuse of the 6-year-old boy started almost at birth. Although Peter Boy had been taken from his parents by Child Protective Services, he was returned to the Kemas despite numerous warnings they were unfit parents.

Kema Sr. told investigators he had taken Peter Boy to Honolulu and left him with an “Aunty Rose Makuakane” as a hanai — an informal Hawaiian adoption. Authorities didn’t believe Kema and couldn’t find the woman or airline records to corroborate his account.

The boy’s body has not been found.

In a deal with prosecutors, Jaylin Kema pleaded guilty Dec. 1 to manslaughter, tearfully telling Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara “I failed to protect my son.”

Deputy Prosecutor Rick Damerville told the judge a forensic pathologist will testify Peter Boy’s death was probably from septic shock due to a festering wound on his arm caused by abuse from Kema Sr., and because his parents — despite having medical insurance — didn’t provide the boy timely medical attention.

Peter Kema Sr. is scheduled to start trial Jan. 23, but Damerville said trial will likely be postponed in April.

Jaylin Kema is scheduled to be sentenced May 30 but might be sentenced sooner, Damerville said.

5. Dengue/Zika

The outbreak of dengue fever that started Sept. 11, 2015, with the first-confirmed case of the mosquito-borne viral disease, continued into 2016.

Waipio Valley was declared off-limits for nonresidents from mid-January to late March, and the county declared an emergency Feb. 8, paving the way for Gov. David Ige to follow suit, which would make funds from the state’s Major Disaster Fund available to help cover expenses related to mosquito control efforts. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard blasted Ige in late January for not declaring a statewide emergency, a step the governor took Feb. 12.

The Legislature allocated $1.27 million to hire more vector-control workers to “fight the bite,” and the last confirmed case of locally acquired dengue was reported March 23.

In all, there were 264 confirmed cases of locally acquired dengue fever reported during the seven-month outbreak, six confirmed imported cases of dengue and about 1,900 of reported potential cases evaluated and/or tested by investigators.

In late May, the Department of Health responded to another case of imported dengue on Hawaii Island, as medical and health officials turned their attention to the Zika virus, another tropical mosquito-borne illness.

So far, one case of Zika has been confirmed on Hawaii Island, in October. That individual had recently traveled to the South Pacific. No locally acquired cases of Zika have been reported, thus far.

6. Lava

The “June 27” lava flow that menaced Pahoa and put Highway 130 and the rest of lower Puna at risk two years ago ceased June 6, according to Janet Babb, spokeswoman for Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

But Madame Pele continues to put on a show, as lava from Pu‘u ‘O‘o vent crossed the Kalapana emergency route July 25 and cascaded into the ocean the following day. It was the first time molten rock from Kilauea volcano entered the ocean inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park since August 2013.

Visitors and residents alike flocked by the thousands to see the ocean entry, by land, helicopter and lava-tour boat.

The “61g flow” continues to enter the ocean at Kamokuna, fed by lava tubes.

In addition, the fluctuating lava lake formed by inflation at Kilauea’s summit spilled onto the floor of Halema‘uma‘u crater early in the year, bringing an increased number of visitors to the Jaggar Museum at night to catch a glimpse.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, Jan. 3 will mark the 34th anniversary of Kilauea’s ongoing eruption.

7. Police shootings

Six people were shot by Hawaii Island police in 2016, five of them fatally. All of the officer-involved shootings occurred in East Hawaii.

Two of the men shot to death, Ronald Barawis Jr., a 38-year-old parolee, and Scottie Yanagawa, a 29-year-old prison furlough violator, were reportedly wanted by police for a Jan. 31 shooting at Honolii Lookout in Hilo that critically injured a Kona man, William Holbron-Kealoha.

Barawis was shot and killed Feb. 5 in the McDonald’s drive-thru at Puainako Town Center in Hilo. Police say Barawis was heavily armed and drove at officers, who fired in response. A woman who was in the car with Barawis was critically injured by gunfire.

Yanagawa was killed four days later in a shootout with officers in the Hilo Wal-Mart parking lot. Police say Yanagawa shot first.

Kalyp Rapoza, 25, of Hilo, was fatally shot June 6 by an officer at a home on East Kawailani Street. Police say Rapoza chased Fire Department ambulance personnel back into their vehicle with a dog and knife. An officer dispatched to the scene was confronted, according to police, and shot Rapoza and the pit bull.

Family members of Rapoza have disputed the police account of events as reported by the Tribune-Herald, but didn’t respond to at least two Tribune-Herald invitations to tell their side of the story.

BJ Medeiros, 36, of Keaau, was shot and killed July 22 on Beach Road off Kaloli Drive in Hawaiian Paradise Park. Police say Medeiros was sitting alone in a pickup truck with a handgun. When two officers approached the truck, a struggle ensued. Medeiros allegedly pointed the handgun at one of the officers, who fired in response, killing him. Reports in other media said Medeiros was suicidal.

And on Dec. 9, a manhunt for 30-year-old Stephen Whitney, accused stabbing his girlfriend that morning, ended with an officer shooting and killing Whitney that afternoon on Highway 11 near Shipman Industrial Park in Keaau.

Police say Whitney was shot when he revved the engine of a stolen pickup truck and drove toward another officer, who was uninjured.

Whitney’s girlfriend, 41-year-old Catherine Arbour, was hospitalized in critical condition, but underwent surgery and has since been discharged.

8. HEI acquisition rejected

The state Public Utilities Commission in July rejected a proposed $4.3 billion acquisition of Hawaiian Electric Industries by Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc. The decision came more than 1 1/2 years after NextEra announced its plans to buy HEI, the parent company of Hawaii Electric Light Co., Hawaiian Electric and Maui Electric.

A press release from the PUC said the panel found benefits to ratepayers put forth in the NextEra and HEI applications “inadequate and uncertain.”

HEI and its subsidiaries and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers supported the deal. The opposition included Gov. David Ige and then-state Consumer Advocate Jeffrey Ono, who said the deal wasn’t a good one for Hawaii consumers.

In the meantime, HELCO announced plans to seek a 6.5 percent rate increase, which would raise a typical residential bill for 500 kilowatt hours on Hawaii Island $9.31 a month from $161.85 to $171.16.

The hike, which requires PUC approval, “would likely not take effect until the summer of 2017 at the earliest,” HELCO’s announcement said.

In addition, Hu Honua Bioenergy filed a civil antitrust complaint in U.S. District Court in Honolulu Nov. 30, alleging Hawaii Electric Light Co. terminated their power purchase agreement to increase monopolistic control over Hawaii Island’s energy production.

HELCO ended the agreement in March, citing Hu Honua’s failure to meet project milestones for construction of a half-completed biomass power plant in Pepeekeo.

The suit seeks treble damages for the $120 million invested in the half-completed power plant and $435 million in lost profit.

Also named as defendants are NextEra and Hamakua Energy Partners.

9. Dispensaries delayed

Medical marijuana has been legal in Hawaii since 2000, but for patients, the only alternatives were to grow it themselves, have a registered caregiver grow it for them or buy it on the black market.

That, at least in theory, changed when a law allowing state-licensed dispensaries was signed into law in 2015. The statutory date to start selling medical marijuana was July 15.

But numerous delays in implementation of the program have delayed production for eight licensees who are to be allowed to open two storefronts each.

The law requires dispensaries to have a “statistically representative sample” of any marijuana or manufactured marijuana product tested by a state-certified lab prior to sale. But as of late November, only one company, PharmLabs Hawaii LLC, part of San Diego-based marijuana lab-testing company PharmLabs LLC, had applied for certification.

Another holdup was a computerized “seed-to-sale” tracking system for the state Department of Health. There were complications with Florida-based BioTrackTHC’s system integrating with an existing DOH database, but a contract was inked last month.

The two Big Island licenses were awarded to former banana farmer Richard Ha’s company, Lau Ola, and retired Waimea attorney Shelby Floyd’s company, Hawaiian Ethos LLC. Ha previously announced plans to open in early 2017. Hawaiian Ethos declined to share its plans with the Tribune-Herald.

10. Happy 100th KTA and HVNP!

Two Hawaii Island institutions, KTA Super Stores and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, celebrated their 100th anniversaries in 2016.

KTA, a six-store, islandwide supermarket chain, was started in 1916 — no one knows the exact date — by Koichi and Taniyo Taniguchi as a K Taniguchi Shoten. It originally was a 500-square-foot mom-and-pop grocery and dry goods store on Lihiwai Street in Waiakea Town.

Barry Taniguchi, KTA’s CEO and chairman and grandson of the founders, said his grandfather used the adage “the customer is always right” as a guiding principle of the business.

KTA now employs about 800 people, making it one of the Big Island’s largest private-sector employers.

Barry Taniguchi’s son, Toby Taniguchi, is now president and COO of the company. He said a century in business is “a momentous occasion, and I’m humbled by it.”

Each store had its own month of centennial celebrations between January and June.

KTA is a visible community partner, as well. Both Taniguchis sit on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, and KTA is involved in a multitude of fundraisers, including for Hospice of Hilo, the Food Basket, ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and University of Hawaii at Hilo Vulcan athletics, to name a few.

The nonprofit Japanese Community Association of Hawaii presented KTA with its 2016 Nikkei Kigyo (“enterprise of Japanese ancestry”) Award.

“We are a local company,” Barry Taniguchi said. “Our employees share our values and those values have everything to do with loyalty to the customer.”

And Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was created on Aug. 1, 1916, by an act of U.S. Congress, creating a national park in the Territory of Hawaii. The newly formed Hawaii National Park included three land areas on Hawaii Island: the Kilauea Section (35,865 acres), the Mauna Loa Section (17,920 acres) and a strip of land to connect the two aforementioned sections. The park also included Haleakala on Maui.

The Maui and Hawaii Island sections split on Aug. 21, 1961, to form Haleakala National Park and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Since 1916, additional pieces of property were acquired, and today Hawaii Volcanoes National Park comprises 333,086 acres.

HVNP celebrated its centennial with numerous free admission days and a stunning number of events and programs for locals and visitors alike.

“I have worked for the National Park Service — also celebrating its centennial this year — for more than 45 years, and it is such a joy to come to work each day with such a dedicated and passionate team of employees and observe our local community so deeply involved with and appreciative of the park,” said HVNP Superintendent Cindy Orlando.

• • •

A number of stories narrowly missed the Tribune-Herald’s top 10 list, but are worthy of mention: the deaths of Kahele and Tsuji; former Mayor Harry Kim regaining the county’s highest political office; the issuance of $100 million in municipal bonds, proposed by Kenoi and approved by the County Council, for a number of county parks projects — some, including a controversial $5 million renovation of Kukuihaele Park seemingly rushed to construction during Kenoi’s final months in office; high-profile crimes such as John Ali Hoffman allegedly shooting to death his wife, Aracely, and children, Clara and John Jr., in Leilani Estates, and Ethan Ferguson, a Department of Land and Natural Resources officer and fired former Honolulu police officer, allegedly raping a teenage girl on New Year’s Day on a Keaukaha beach; the building of a new College of Pharmacy building at UH-Hilo and the appointment of Carolyn Ma as the school’s second dean; the building of a roundabout to replace a collision-prone intersection on Highway 130 in Pahoa; and the continued proliferation of destructive invasive pests on Hawaii Island, including the rough sweet potato weevil, macadamia felted coccid, little fire ant and coffee berry borer — all of which make the high-decibel whistle of the male coqui frog’s mating call seem a rather innocuous concern.