Lava a hot topic for Puna council candidates

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Ric Wirick
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Eileen Ohara
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Ashley Kierkiewicz

Puna sits on the most active rift zone of the world’s most active volcano.

And a river of lava runs through it.


Helping guide the district, where the Kilauea eruption has destroyed more than 700 homes, to recovery will be Hawaii County Council members for council districts 4 and 5, which both cover residents in the affected area. With two candidates running for each seat, both races will be decided in the Aug. 11 primary.

District 4

Running for District 4 (east Puna) is incumbent Eileen O’Hara and challenger Ashley Kierkiewicz.

Kierkiewicz, of Hawaiian Paradise Park, is a senior account executive with communications company Hastings &Pleadwell and a founder of Pu‘uhonua o Puna, which started a grassroots disaster relief center for evacuees. The group also is working on a transitional housing project.

She said that shows she can work with the private sector to get things done for the district.

“It’s about using government to expedite these processes and then get out of the way so government can continue focusing on its core function: maintaining its public spaces and the roads and public safety,” said Kierkiewicz, 32.

O’Hara also has been involved in the recovery effort through her office, which organized a lava insurance forum, and meetings with community groups to bridge the gap between residents and Civil Defense.

She said she has tried to make the county’s response less of a top-down approach.

Before joining the council two years ago, O’Hara, 66, was a recycling coordinator and planner for the county and was a state procurement officer. She was previously president of Hawaiian Shores Community Association and teaches economics online.

“I’m familiar with the players,” she said. “I’ve been working with them from the community side for years. I think it’s important because you have to have these relationships to move things forward.”

O’Hara was a proponent of the general excise tax increase the council recently passed, which she said is needed to fund much-needed improvements to the county’s bus system.

“For me, it was about creating a more diverse stream for our revenue,” she said.

Kierkiewicz said she also supports the tax increase, authorized by the state Legislature.

“This was a very unique opportunity that the (Legislature) was giving to all the counties,” she said. “I would have voted for it because we are cash strapped, and this was a way to get outsiders like tourists to be contributing to this tax base.”

Kierkiewicz said the tax is better than closing facilities or charging access fees for residents.

The tax surcharge expires Dec. 31, 2020. O’Hara said she would have liked it to be in place longer to allow county agencies, like Hele-On, to better plan for the future.

She said she would like to see some fees implemented for nonresidents at facilities like the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo.

As county officials look toward a land swap for displaced residents, O’Hara said they should avoid mistakes in the past when a land swap was tried after Kalapana was destroyed by lava. Lots were offered on state land nearby but few people have built.

“It took forever to get off the ground,” she said. “It was so little so late.”

O’Hara said infilling within existing subdivsions might be a better option. “On the other hand, our subdivisions have so many problems,” she said.

While it’s not known when the eruption will end, O’Hara suggested any condemnations by the county should be limited to properties “along the strip of new fissures” rather than entire subdivisions.

Kierkiewicz said it was premature to talk about condemnations.

“I feel we are going to have to have that conversation as a community before we make a decision about condemning the area,” she said.

Kierkiewicz said the county should look to “private-public partnerships” to help the evacuees find housing. She said she is “grassroots and community driven” and has the skills through her public relations work to help make that happen.

Kierkiewicz said she hasn’t decided yet if she will continue with Hastings &Pleadwell if elected. If she did, she said it would be part time and she would avoid working with clients that could present a conflict of interest.

Her past clients include Hu Honua Bioenergy. Hastings &Pleadwell also previously represented Puna Geothermal Venture.

“But I think to stay connected to the community and to be that person that also grinds it out with everyone else, that 9-5, that will help keep me grounded and provide me with a valuable perspective that I could bring to the table as a working mom,” Kierkiewicz said.

Kierkiewicz also is president of the Hilo Zonta Club and sits on the YWCA board of directors. She interned with late Sen. Daniel Akaka.

O’Hara faced criticism for a bill she introduced seeking to create a buffer zone on properties that have more than five roosters. She said she thought it was unfairly portrayed as an attempt to restrict agriculture.

“It was not about any attack on agriculture,” O’Hara said. “It was an attack on a form of raising roosters that doesn’t result in agricultural activity.”

She said the issue is improper zoning and she might consider addressing the issue again.

“We have the right to have agriculture,” O’Hara said. “I feel very strongly about that. To me, that bill was more about the zoning debacle that is Puna.”

District 5

With Councilwoman Jen Ruggles deciding not to seek re-election, the race for District 5 (west Puna) comes down to Ric Wirick and Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder.

Wirick, 57, wants to cut county administration salaries by half and focus on promoting local agriculture. Salaries for administrators and council members are controlled by the county Salary Commission, which approved hefty raises this year. He thinks voters should be asked to change that.

“If we have to change the (county) charter, we will,” said Wirick, of Orchidland.

He said he wasn’t concerned about 50 percent pay cuts driving away talent or having administrators make less than subordinates.

“You are going to get people there who want to do the job,” Wirick said. “They’re not going in there for the money.”

Wirick, who moved to the island in 2005, said he would donate the recent council member raises that exceeded 30 percent to the Kohala Center if elected.

Kanealii-Kleinfelder, 36, is an electrical journeyman for ProVision Solar, and he and his wife own Liko Lehua, a cafe and catering service. He said that gives him a unique perspective as a worker and business owner.

“I’m just kind of your normal, average guy,” said Kanealli-Kleinfelder.

He moved to the island from California in 2001, after visiting several times while growing up.

Kanealii-Kleinfelder of Kurtistown said he was motivated to run to make sure the county is on the right track.

“I don’t think they have any bad intentions,” he said, regarding county leaders. “I just want to ensure that we are thinking about (our children) as we’re making decisions about land and coastal access and things that really affect people now.”

Kanealii-Kleinfelder talked about “unifying the district” so people are on the same page about issues such as connectivity between subdivisions. He said he doesn’t try to pretend he has the answers to everything.

“What it’s going to take is being a teammate and be a team player and working with the other (eight) council members to achieve what we all want to achieve, which is hopefully for the good of the island,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said.

Wirick said he and his wife run Creative Awakenings, which does container gardens for businesses and residents. He said one of their clients is the Prince Kuhio Plaza. Both are former national park rangers when they lived on the mainland.

His main focus is “food sovereignty” and becoming less reliant on imports from the mainland.

Wirick said regulations make it harder to farm and cited prohibitions on dairies selling nonpasteurized milk as an example. He also wants to see processing plants for meat production.

“We should be able to feed ourselves,” Wirick said. “We shouldn’t have to do it kind of on the black market. We should do it more like the roadside stands.”

Wirick also has tried to make an issue out of his opponent’s use of his hyphenated last name, claiming that a Hawaiian surname gives him an unfair advantage.

Kanealii-Kleinfelder said that became his legal name after he was married.

District 5 includes parts of lower Puna to the west of Leilani Estates, the epicenter of the eruption. While residents who have lost their homes are in District 4, some District 5 residents are impacted by laze and other hazards.

Regarding people living in Lava Zone 1, Wirick said there “should be no knee-jerk reaction as to what happens next.”

He said a land swap, where evacuees give their lava-covered lot to the county or state in exchange for land elsewhere, could be “dangerous” because public land might be ceded land.

“Who owns title?” Wirick asked. “If it’s the Hawaiian kingdom, again you have to work that aspect out.”

Kanealii-Kleinfelder said talk of a long-term relocation plan taking 18 months seems optimistic.

“It takes four to six months to get a (photovoltaic) permit, so to do a 18-month turnaround for development of a community seems a bit much,” he said.

Kanealii-Kleinfelder said he prefers infill in existing subdivisions.

“I like infill because that’s immediate,” he said. “These people need immediate homes.”

Regarding the county budget, Kanealii-Kleinfelder said he wants to see where the county stands after receiving money from the general excise tax increase.

“I don’t want to lay anybody off,” he said. “I don’t want to lose jobs.”

Kanealii-Kleinfelder said he doesn’t think there’s much fat left in the budget to trim.


“We just got to get efficient,” he said.

Email Tom Callis at

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