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How Maui County Was Made

A hundred years ago, the counties were nearly named after monarchs, not islands.


Wailuku town, about the time Maui became a county.

Photo: maui historical society

Liliuokalani no ka oi” just wouldn’t have had the same ring to it. The islands of Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe would have been united as a county under the name of Hawaii’s last queen if territorial lawmakers had gotten their way in 1901, the first time they tried to establish local governments.

The other counties would also have gotten the royal treatment under the first County Bill—Lunalilo County for Kauai and Niihau, Kalakaua for Oahu, Keona and Kamehameha for the separate counties of East and West Hawaii.

For better or worse, it took two more tries over four years before legislators passed a bill that stuck. The five counties—under the more familiar names Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Hawaii and Kalawao (encompassing the Kalaupapa leprosy settlement)—were formally established in 1905. Upheld that year by Hawaii’s Supreme Court, they’ve been managing local affairs ever since.

That makes 2005 a major birthday for all the counties. Who is planning the parties? Kauai County currently plans to sit out the festivities. The Big Island will observe its centennial at its annual July 4th event. The Honolulu Centennial Commission didn’t meet until mid-March of 2005. It is now working on an ambitious marketing, historical and event plan to kick off in July.

Maui Country stated planning two years ago for centennial events to run throughout 2005. From a sober Proclamation Day to a family-oriented “Birthday Bash,” festivals on Molokai and Lanai and a formal ball, Maui’s celebrations will also include touring exhibits, school projects and an ongoing program to mark historic homes and buildings.

Why all the fuss over a law some might say just created another layer of bureaucracy?

Maui centennial organizer Stephanie Ohigashi says the County Bill created the Maui Nui we know today.

“We were given an identity, and from that identity we evolved,” she says. By uniting four diverse islands under one government, an independent government with a measure of home rule, the bill started Maui County on its own path, growing in a way that made it unique and distinct from the rest of the state, she says.

To understand the bill’s impact, imagine if lawmakers had stuck with their original plan of making Lahaina the County seat.

West Mauians have long felt that, while their resorts, restaurants, shops and activities are the beating heart of the County’s economy, their roads, parks and water systems go under-funded by a government that votes a winding, 25-mile drive away in Wailuku.

Theo Morrison, of the Lahaina Town Action Committee, sounded almost wistful about what might have been.

“Everything is decided on that side,” she said. “It would totally change the scope of the whole island if the County met on this side.”

Keeping the four-island County united while also maintaining its diversity has been one of the top challenges of lawmakers at both the County and state levels, says veteran Maui legislator Joe Souki.

Some communities, like Molokai, cherish tradition, while others, like South Maui, embrace the new resort economy; green Haiku preaches environmentalism, while industrious Kahului prioritizes jobs. Making it work politically means finding a balance.

“You learn to live under one tent and respect the differences,” Souki says.



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Honolulu Magazine April 2018
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