Kenoi’s ‘Potluck’ Governing Style

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - November 11, 2009

In Hilo recently, I talked with the Big Island’s new mayor, Billy Kenoi. He allowed me to intrude on his No. 1 son’s Saturday afternoon soccer game. Between yelled instructions to his boy, Kenoi answered my questions.

The biggest surprise of his first 10 months in office? “The sheer volume of requests,” says Kenoi. He’s meeting them with a cabinet made up of many who are new to county government: a couple of former newspaper reporters (“They come in with fresh eyes and don’t begin by telling you why something can’t be done,” says the mayor) and a corporate type or two.

“I’ve taken my entire cabinet to 20 community meetings throughout the county,” says Kenoi. “Many of the meetings have been packed. We listen and we don’t leave until every question has been answered.


“One thing I’ve learned from these meetings is that a lot of people feel disconnected from county government. Everyone talks about the disconnect between East and West Hawaii - between Hilo and Kona. But it’s more than that.”

Kenoi leads a county, like all of Hawaii’s counties, that’s struggling with “the worst economic challenge we’ve faced since post-9/11.” Hotel occupancy on Hawaii Island has slumped, and the county faces budget shortfalls of $38 million, $45 million and $100 million through 2011.”

“Six of our 10 largest employers are hotels,” say Kenoi, “so you know we’re hurting.”

How will Hawaii County cope? “I talk from the heart. I tell people the truth: that we’re all in this together. We’ll get some federal money. We’ll make some sacrifices. We’ll ask local communities and the private sector to help.

“I tell people that it’s like a potluck.

Everyone brings something to the table. Somebody brings a big pot of chicken adobo, somebody brings Portuguese bean soup, somebody else only brings a liter of Coke, but everybody brings what they can. And I’ve never been to a bad potluck.

“If everybody brings what they can to deal with this economic crisis, we’ll get through it.”

During last year’s mayoral campaign, Kenoi spoke often of his commitment to building a countywide bus system. Despite the county’s money woes, he remains committed to it.

“We’re carrying a million passengers a month, and it’s been increasing by 4,000 to 5,000 every month. We have to expand. We’re a big county with a lot of two-lane roads, and it’s unrealistic to think that we’re going to build four lanes around this island.

“We have to get out of our cars. So we have to build a bus system that’s reliable, one that when a guy goes out to the bus stop in the morning he knows that a bus is going to pick him up and get him to work on time.”

Kenoi acknowledges that building transportation systems isn’t easy. He voices admiration for Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann: “You gotta give the guy credit. It takes courage to build a modern transportation system, but they can’t continue to pave Oahu with more lanes of traffic.”

Whether Kenoi’s talking transportation, development of Hawaii Island’s alternative energy or helping the county’s farmers, he talks fast in a clipped, downright eloquent semi-pidgin - and with great enthusiasm.

“I wake up every day energized by my island’s future, the future of the state and the nation,” he says.

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