Aranguiz leaving Mass Transit after only 8 months on the job

  • Transit Administrator Maria “Sole” Aranguiz at her new office in the Hilo baseyard in March. (NANCY COOK LAUER/West Hawaii Today)

The disarray at the county Mass Transit Agency continues with the resignation of Administrator Maria “Sole” Aranguiz.

Aranguiz is leaving Mass Transit on Oct. 26 after only eight months on the job. The civil service position pays $70,644 to $130,152 annually.

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One of five finalists in a competitive process that began shortly after Mayor Harry Kim took office in late 2016, Aranguiz was formerly chief of systems planning and forecasting for the California Department of Transportation before taking the Hawaii County job. She said she’s going back to California to return to her old position.

Kim on Thursday praised Aranguiz’ can-do attitude in the face of resistance from some workers and county officials.

“She did different things to make do with what she had,” Kim said. “We lost a winner.”

A no-nonsense administrator, Aranguiz took over a department plagued with broken-down buses, inconsistent bus arrivals and a critical audit that found mismanaged cash. Those problems already existed when she took over.

Cash-handling was so lax, the legislative auditor couldn’t tell if any money was missing, much less how much.

The theft of a bus not once, but twice by the same suspect, didn’t help raise the agency’s reputation.

Kim said Aranguiz is leaving the department in a better place, even from her short tenure. He said he’s asked the Human Resources Department to take another look at the other finalists. If they’re not a good fit or aren’t interested, the department will solicit applications, a process that will add much more time to filling the position.

“I told them, ‘Find me another winner,’” Kim said.

Aranguiz said the agency is making progress, but it often wasn’t acknowledged by officials. She praised the assistance of the mayor’s office and other departments.

“This agency has gone through critical times. We are moving as fast as we can, but there are only so many things we can do,” Aranguiz said. “We need champions, we need more support. … We’re doing our very best.”

Aranguiz took over from Tiffany Kai, who was moved to paratransit coordinator. Kim said Kai is not interested in the position.

Kim previously brought in retired Marine Curtis Sharp at $9,584 month to trouble-shoot and manage the agency until Aranguiz was hired. Sharp was disqualified from running for the permanent position, as he didn’t have the required public transit experience.

Aranguiz had stated her first priority was to get buses back on the road and improve customer service.

Employees have grumbled to the newspaper about Aranguiz’ management style, but none wanted their names used.

One of her first actions was to open a small office at the county building in Hilo, where two employees address disabled riders’ concerns, answer questions and sell bus tickets and coupons. The goal was to bring the transit system to the people.

But Aranguiz’ outspoken manner cost her support on the County Council, especially that of Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, who repeatedly tried to gut her budget and scolded her for not initially embracing the $500,000 transit master plan and not being more responsive to his district.

“If you’re going to be the director, you’ve got to take ownership of the plan, and I don’t hear you owning the plan,” Richards told her in a May council meeting. “It’s not that we don’t need a bus, we do. But we’ve got to have confidence in the leadership that we’re actually going to get what we are expecting.”

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The Mass Transit Agency last year relied on about $4.6 million in general fund revenues, which come from property taxes. The remainder of its $15.7 million budget comes from federal grants and the highway fund, which is supported by fuel taxes and license and permit fees. The current budget adds general excise taxes to the mix, replacing the general fund money.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.