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Year-End Wrap: GMOs, Boldface Names & Shark Bites

Maui’s notable news for 2013.

December 26, 2013
Susan Halas - Contributing Writer (wailukusue@gmail.com) , Maui Weekly

It's the end of the year again, and after looking back at events that shaped the news--the big, the small, the ridiculous and the sublime--we present our list of top stories for 2013.

1. OMG, GMO - Big ag's second act

This was the year that food safety, genetically modified seed, pesticides and the practices of Big Ag--including Monsanto and HC&S--were the topics of increasing scrutiny and widespread concern.

Article Photos

Courtney Bruch (right) was everywhere, giving position papers on GMOs to the governor (left), rallying the troops, passing out leaflets--in short, acting like a cornerstone of “old school” activism against genetically modified food.

Who could have guessed that a generation that ingested practically every known chemical substance in their youth would, as they aged, suddenly converge on food safety as a major threat to public health? But that indeed was the big story of the year.

The GMO (genetically modified organism) protests drew by far the largest crowds ever seen on Maui in recent years, and similar large and larger, loud and louder gatherings throughout the state. The show of force gave credibility to the existence of a broad base of support.

This year, on Maui alone, there were three different mass marches. Those who participated seemed to be mixture of the Occupy Wall Street crowd from the year before, whose mantra was "We are the 99 percent," and a very large and vocal contingent of "Mother Power." The moms and their kids in strollers, wagons and on foot were highly visible at all the local events.

There were marches all through the spring and summer, and by year's end, a new group called the SHAKA Movement (Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the 'Aina) announced intentions to use the initiative provision to put a GMO moratorium on the Maui General Election ballot in 2014. This way of putting questions to a vote has long been available here, but it has never actually been used at the county level.

In the meantime, the Pa'ia Community Center was a hotbed of dialog and rhetoric, hosting such notables as Dr. Lorin Pang, Maui district health officer for the State of Hawai'i, speaking as private citizen; Walter Ritte, Molokai activist; and most recently, Hector Valenzuela, crop production specialist at the University of Hawai'i's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (UH CTAHR)--each with their own take on the science (or lack of it).

Maui Councilmember Elle Cochran has also introduced related legislation that echoes a successful (albeit contentious) measure on Kaua'i. In fact, the action on Maui, as large as it has become, is only part of the larger statewide picture.

GMOs and pesticides were discussed at the 2013 legislature, where the refusal of state Sen. Roz Baker (D) of Lahaina to even hear proposals related to the subject drew the ire of her opponents. The return of the issue in 2014 seems assured.

Though the core issue was pegged "GMO," the topic is actually a bundle of related hot potatoes with public health implications. They proved to be some of the year's most contentious subjects, with both opponents and advocates claiming the high ground.

Whether the anti-GMO folks will actually vote remains to be seen, but they have already demonstrated they know how to turn out a crowd.

For apathetic laid-back Maui, with the lowest voter turnouts in human memory, this sudden and highly visible burst of interest seems to mark the emergence of a new political constituency.

For their standard bearer, look no farther than Courtney Bruch--she was everywhere, giving position papers on GMOs to the governor, rallying the troops, passing out leaflets--in short, acting like a cornerstone of "old school" activism. Her high visibility made her the point person for this issue on Maui.

While Monsanto took most of the heat, HC&S, the other big ag operation on Maui, was also in the news frequently as complaints about cane burning, black snow and other air quality and agriculture chemical concerns drew increased scrutiny.

The split in the Maui County Farm Bureau between the big ag members and the more traditional smaller farmers grew more pronounced.

A rash of suspicious HC&S fires caused damage estimated in the high six figures. Other vegetable, fruit and livestock operations also reported losses from theft and poaching.

While there was much politically themed ag activity in 2013, there was also an increase in economic development and outreach efforts embodied in ag fairs and festivals. Also highly visible were many cooperative ventures that teamed chefs, resorts and restaurants teaming with farmers and other producers of local products. These drew big crowds, too, and they increased the interest in local food and drink.

The ever-bigger crowds for events that stressed locally grown products in both food and beverage were interpreted as a signal that Maui might be ready for bigger things. In this vein, the Maui Brewing Company announced a large new brewery and brewpub in Kihei. In a similar expansionist vein, the UH Maui College (UHMC) got startup funds for a food innovation center, which promises to bring labeling, marketing and distribution know-how to local growers. Pilot applicants are being interviewed, and introduction to the center is advertised in the continuing education classes offered at UHMC.

2. Musical Chairs - The first post-Inouye year in Hawai'i politics

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye's death on Dec. 17, 2012, began a chain of events that rearranged Hawai'i's political landscape.

By January 2013, all the new players were in place, starting with former Hawai'i Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, who was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat.

When Schatz moved up, that created a vacancy in lieutenant governor's office for the state's number two job. By law, the president of the Hawai'i State Senate was in line for the opening. That post was held by Maui's Shan Tsutsui. He was first inclined to turn it down and then accepted the post, which in turn led to some changes in the state Senate, where Gil Keith-Agaran, formerly a state representative, moved up to the Senate seat for the Kahului-centered district. His former post, also in Kahului, went to political novice Justin Woodson, who became a state representative.

While all this was going on, Maui's favorite octogenarian, foxy grandpa Joe Souki, made a successful bid to reclaim the speakership of the State House from his longtime rival, Calvin Say, who had dumped him some 13 years before.

Souki did it in a most un-Souki like manner: he cobbled together the necessary votes with a bi-partisan coalition, which, surprisingly, included Republicans.

You could hear a collective gasp of disbelief from Democrats all over the state. "Oh my word," but it worked and it held; though the Say contingent fought back until the zero hour and then some. A pencil, a telephone and the ability to count to 26 was all it took to settle the old grudge.

On opening day, Souki was all smiles, back in his former corner digs with a lovely lanai and a view of 'Iolani Palace, while Say was relegated to the darker and less expansive former quarters designated for the "Speaker Emeritus."

As Homer Simpson would say, "Woohoo!"

The actions of the regular session of the state Legislature were many, and they included a rapid repeal of the Public Lands Development Corporation (PLDC) and calling a special session later in the year that ratified marriage equality, making Hawai'i the 16th state to legalize same gender unions.

Meanwhile, back in Congress, Hawai'i had zero seniority, but some pretty flashy players. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard got plenty of ink, especially as she was sworn in as that body's first female Hindu.

Semi-lost in the shuffle was Colleen Hanabusa, the Democratic congresswoman from O'ahu who had been Inouye's pick to succeed him. Despite a deathbed letter from Dan to Neal, when the moment came, it was "no dice," and as the year went by, Schatz seemed to pick up support. Next year's election will finish that story.

Meanwhile, back on the Valley Isle

On Maui, the political year belonged to the Mayor Alan Arakawa, who was a one-man band, visible everywhere, live and in-person on the air, the Internet, television, columns and anything else that moved, spoke or raised money. There was even a "Dear Leader"-type birthday bash/campaign fundraiser for his re-election effort. If it all seemed a little over the top for a small-town mayor preparing for a small-town bid for re-election, it definitely showed a seriousness of intent.

Not much was heard this from the County Council either individually or collectively (although the mayor and the council both graciously accepted big raises this year as recommended by the county Salary Commission--even though common sense might have suggested they decline).

Such was not the case.

As the year passed, some residents wondered at the motives of Councilmember Mike White, who seemed to snipe at Arakawa in ways that sometimes seemed hard to understand.

White and his colleagues waited until the old Wailuku Post Office was completely demolished and a new building set to rise on the site--a demolition they had all personally witnessed from their offices next door in the County Building--before authorizing an "investigation" into alleged improper use of the funds.

At this point, the "investigation" has yet to begin.

White was also at the head of the line to question the appraisal price of oceanfront Launiupoko property, long desired for public use by the mayor.

There was, however, again, some head shaking and out-loud wondering on the motivation and intent of those throwing up the roadblocks, as well as speculation that White himself might be testing the waters as an Arakawa opponent. Many seem to feel that the Launiupoko acquisition is a good value at a fair price that will not come again, and are mystified why efforts to acquire these lands for public use seemed to stall.

Finally, after a year of being reviewed, the County Council voted unanimously last week to preliminarily approve the purchase of the 186 acres for $13 million just before the landowner's deal deadline approached.

3. High-profile players -Barry, Larry, Edward,Oprah, Arianna, Shane

Into the mix of local politicians and grassroots activism came some heavy hitters with fat wallets and boldface names. This year, they included Larry Ellison of Oracle Silicone Valley riches, who bought the Island of Lana'i from fellow billionaire David Murdock for a reputed half-a-billion dollars and change. He then went on to buy Island Air, which serves Lana'i and other islands. The same Ellison--now a "wannabe" kama'aina--did his new hometown proud when his Team Oracle won the 2013 America's Cup race. It was yachting's biggest event--expensive, exciting and definitely big-time. Helped along by a storybook finish, it was hard not to admire this victory.

Likewise, in a Marie Antoinette agricultural moment, Oprah Winfrey announced the opening of an organic farm on land she owns here. The declaration drew national and even international coverage in slick pages of her own O Magazine, People magazine and other carriers of pop culture buzz.

Celebrities made news here all through the year: Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac opened a new restaurant in Lahaina that was warmly received, while KISS rock stars Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons put their name and money into Rock & Brews, a beer and music venue slated for Pa'ia, a venture that has yet to open and has played to a mixed reception.

Interested in communications? Arianna Huffington (of the top-ranked Huffington Post worldwide Website) and Pierre Omidyar (of eBay billions and backer of Civil Beat, a Honolulu investigative journalism Website) announced a joint venture Hawaiian edition of the Huff-Po at a swank party at the home of celebrity chef Bev Gannon in Makawao.

In 2012, Steven Tyler, Aerosmith lead singer and American Idol judge, purchased a home on Maui for $4.8 million. No sooner was he a Valley Isle resident than he prevailed upon Maui state Sen. Kalani English to introduce a bill in 2013 that would have allowed people to sue others who take photos or videos of folks like Tyler and their private moments.

The Senate passed the measure--despite many raised eyebrows--but the House was made of sterner stuff. Said Rep. Angus McKelvey, a Maui Democrat who heads the Consumer Protection Committee; "To say there is absolutely zero support would be an understatement." McKelvey's prediction proved accurate, and that--at least for 2013--was the end of it.

It was not just rock celebs who put Hawai'i in the news. Local boy President of the United States Barrack Obama made his annual plans to fly home for the Christmas holidays, even as the neighbors deplored the traffic and gawkers his visits caused.

Possibly the second most noticed (former) Hawai'i resident was young Edward Snowden. The security-savvy systems analyst triggered the biggest story of the year when he departed the Honolulu offices of Booz Allen Hamilton for Hong Kong and then on to Moscow, seeking political asylum and trailing explosive revelations about the collecting of massive amounts of data and American spying as he went. The mid-level geek with a high-level conscience was hailed as a hero by some and a traitor by others. So far, the dialog between the public and its government--which he hoped to encourage--has yet to take place.

The Snowden revelations only confirmed what many Americans already suspected--that their government had launched unprecedented "Big Brother"-type activities at home and abroad without observing any of the legal or procedural steps necessary to authorize them.

But thank God it wasn't all cloak and dagger.

Closer to home, Shane Victorino (aka the "Flyin' Hawaiian') earned Wailuku a good name in Boston. Victorino's star quality ball playing helped the Red Sox clinch the World Series this year. Does it get any better?

And in the worthy-of-notice category, Chef Sheldon Simeon, who was seen last year judging the Filipino adobo recipe contest at the local mall, appeared as a contestant on television's Top Chef. While he didn't win, he did gain national following and became a popular celebrity this year in Maui's world of food.

The Sharks - And other natural dangers in paradise

Not all the local action was on the land. An unprecedented string of shark attacks that resulted in the death of a German tourist in August and a kayaker in December had Maui in the news around the globe.

While many of the attacks were in the Makena and Wailea area, there were also reports from the West Side, North Shore and Waiehu. No definitive reason has been established for the increase, but leading theories came from two camps.

Environmentalists think the exhaustion of the food supply due to overfishing has caused the predators to move into shallower waters, while the followers of the "old knowledge" say the sharks, a potent Hawaiian 'aumakua (family god), are a symbol or omen that call attention to desecration Hawai'i's land and ocean resources.

Tropical Storm Flossie in July, which was on-track to be the first hurricane in 20 years to hit Maui directly, had people here scrambling for flashlights and gas. It was touch-and-go for hours, but the storm passed us with little damage due to a late change in direction. Most Mauians were glad for the preparation and advance warning.

As it always comes in threes, there were earthquakes, too. In June, Hawai'i had a 5.8 event and in August, a 4.8 quake occurred-both off Big Island. Though neither did damage locally, both were felt here.

And finally, after what seemed like an endless dry season, Upcountry water restrictions were lifted in November after much-needed heavy rains ended the long-running drought.

Power Hungry - The good, the bad and

There was no shortage of energy stories in 2013. They ranged from garbage-to-energy, photovoltaic, wind and solar. This was the year that electric charging stations for electric cars sprung up in front of the County Building and were installed in the larger parking lots around the island.

In September, the Maui Electric Company (MECO) put a freeze on 10 of its circuits and announced that there world be no further PV installation in the affected areas until infrastructure upgrades could be completed.

These upgrades were estimated to take as long as two years, and Maui consumers who still wanted to go ahead with PV would be charged a pass-through, pro rata share of the improvements, which might add as much as $6,000 to $16,000 to the costs of household photovoltaic system.

In October, the Maui Weekly wrote about the fate of Maui consumer Lilia Chong, who found herself in limbo as a result of the utility's the retroactive decision. Despite her good records and belief that she would be treated fairly, Chong was dismayed to find that she and many like her were unceremoniously put on indefinite hold with little recourse.

The same retroactive rule change applied to larger commercial users. But unlike consumers, some of whom filed complaints with the Public Utilities Commission, the larger business users said (off the record) that they would hire their own engineers and seek alternative solutions to hooking up to the local grid. Privately, they thought their money would go a lot farther that way than fighting the entrenched powers of MECO and maneuvering the politically slippery slopes of the state Public Utilities Commission. In a choice between the lawyers and the engineers, they put their bucks on the engineers.

This skirmish seemed to be only a preliminary warm-up to the alternative energy future of Maui Electric and all the companies in the Hawai'i Electric Industries (HEI) family that supply power to O'ahu, Maui and Hawai'i Island.

The Bright Spots

Perhaps the brightest spot for South Maui came at the end of the legislative session when Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing came home with the welcome news that the long-awaited, long-delayed Kihei High School had been fully funded to the tune of $130 million. It was an unexpected and heartwarming turn of events, as well as the biggest capital improvement line item in the governor's education budget. Ing said he expects the project to go ahead rapidly subject to the release of money by the governor.

Likewise, Kihei Charter School announced in November that it had been approved for multimillion dollar financing by the USDA and would be moving ahead with plans to build a high school facility for Maui's only public charter school on land owned by its parent organization in the Maui Research and Technology Park.

Other openings and expansions the Valley Isle, not necessarily in order of size or importance, included a large new Safeway in Wailuku (immediately rumored to be haunted), The Outlets of Maui in Lahaina, the late-in-the-year opening of Andaz Hotel in Wailea with more 500 employees and the palatial new Kihei station for the Maui Police Department. Making local residents happy, the new Costco Gas Station opened in July to widespread consumer euphoria.

Also, on the private side, work went forward on the A&B commercial lots in Central Maui. In the public sector, the airport access roadway, major improvements for Kahului Airport and a massive, new, centralized rental car facility estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars were thought by some to be a Trojan Horse for friends of a certain Democratic governor.

Maui held on to its ranking as Conde Nast's top island worldwide for the 20th consecutive year, while Mama's Fish House in Pa'ia made the Open Table list of the top ten restaurants in America and the Leis Family Class Act Restaurant at UHMC was included in the top 100.

It's a wrap. Aloha 2013. Aloha 2014.

 
 

 

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