Kim reflects on his time in office, offers advice to next mayor

  • MAYOR HARRY KIM

When the clock strikes noon on Dec. 7, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim will leave the job he’s done for a dozen years in two stretches.

Kim’s political fate was sealed Saturday night when he finished third in a crowded mayoral primary race that saw County Prosecutor Mitch Roth and community organizer Ikaika Marzo secure the top two spots to set up a November runoff election for the office.

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But the 80-year-old mayor, known for his long work days, said he’ll keep his nose to the grindstone for the remainder of his term.

“Sunday morning, I was at work at 6 o’clock. This morning, I was at work at little later, maybe 6:20. I haven’t had a day off since Feb. 28, seven days a week,” Kim told the Tribune-Herald on Monday. Feb. 28 is when Kim issued an emergency proclamation because of the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. David Ige followed suit five days later.

“You know your time’s up in December, which means more work because you have to transition to the new mayor, so he’ll have full understanding of what’s going on, what projects (are) pending,” Kim said. “I really thought I had a pretty good feel of what people wanted from their government. That’s why I said I’ll work every day to gain the people’s trust and make them proud of their government.

“… I meant every single word of it, and I hope people know that. But this election showed, obviously, I was wrong. I did not.”

Kim, who served 24 years as Civil Defense administrator, was mayor from 2000-08 and was elected again in 2016. During this term, his administration dealt with the monthslong lower East Rift Zone eruption of Kilauea Volcano and historic flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Lane in 2018, a standoff last year on Maunakea with opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope blocking the road up the mountain, and this year’s aforementioned COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think when people look back on it, I think they will be proud of their county government, state government and private sector, how we are responding to this virus now,” Kim said.

There has been some back-and-forth about pandemic policy, however.

“I’m in strong disagreement with where the state is going with the (University of Hawaii at Hilo), with visitors, with tourism,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an acceptable risk, and I told them that this morning.”

The 2018 eruption covered several lower Puna roads with lava and destroyed more than 700 homes.

“If I were to write a book on it, it would be a template on how government should respond,” Kim said, and added about ongoing efforts to restore roads, “What we did was unprecedented: federal money, state money commitments — not one dollar from the county because the county had no money.”

Between Aug. 22 and 26, 2018, The outer bands of Lane dumped more than 50 inches of rain over some East Hawaii spots, causing flooding and several evacuations, including homes on Reed’s Island in Hilo.

Kim described the county’s response as “ahead of the game as far as evacuation, warning, preparation and mobilization.”

On July 15, 2019, thousands of TMT opponents — who call themselves kia‘i, or protectors of the mountain — mobilized, keeping construction trucks off Maunakea Access Road. Two days later, 38 peaceful demonstrators, mostly kupuna, were arrested and charged with misdemeanor obstruction.

Their cases are still pending, but construction on the mountain still hasn’t begun, delayed not only by the protests but by the pandemic, as well.

The state claims ownership of the mountain, as well as the access road, but Ige turned over day-to-day of the standoff to Kim — some claim unfairly.

“Truthfully, I could’ve said no. But when he asked, I grabbed it … I literally grabbed it,” Kim said. “I said, ‘I don’t have that much time, but I think this is important in what it can be for Hawaii — a recognition of wrongs and how to go forward, and how it can be good for our economy (and) our children.’”

Kim published his vision for the mountain in a pamphlet titled, “Heart of Aloha — Maunakea: A Way Forward.” In it, Kim proposed a compromise he said would move the $2.4 billion project forward while addressing opponents’ concerns.

“I thought we could go forward and make things better. And I still believe that, by the way,” he said.

Kim suffered his sixth heart attack and was hospitalized for five days in June 2018, during the lava crisis. He still rides a bicycle daily and insists he’s physically capable.

“All my doctors will tell you they shake their heads. ‘How do you do it?’ I feel very good. I feel very able to do this job. I wouldn’t ask to do it if I could not do it,” he said.

Asked whom he favors to succeed him, Kim said he’s undecided for now.

“One of them will be our next mayor. And I always vote, and I’ll vote for one of them,” he responded.

As for advice he’d pass along to the next occupant of the office, if asked, Kim said to ensure Civil Defense is ready for whatever comes.

“I spend a lot of time there because of the importance of the office,” he said. “And I would tell him how important it is to work with them and to not make it a political office, to make an office responsive to the safety of the people of this island.

“The other thing I would emphasize is trust in government. The first thing we changed was our hiring policies, and I’m proud of that. We changed immediately that the mayor’s office will not be involved in any hiring except of his immediate staff.”

Asked about his post-mayoral plans, Kim immediately mentioned his wife, Bobbie.

“We’ve been married 53 years, OK? And she told me, ‘This is the first time, after Christmas, you don’t have to rush back to work. And maybe we can go away as a family.’

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“That’s what I’m thinking about.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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