Taking Sides on the Big Island

A recent kerfuffle in the Big Island politics revives the debate over a two-county structure.

The Big Island is so big that some kamaaina there clamor about splitting it into two Hawaii Counties, East and West. Recent County Council reorganization and “musical chairmanships” shuffled some members into less-prominent committee seats and revived the controversy, but it’s more than just geography that divides the island’s politics.

According to the County Data Book, about half of the Big Island’s 175,000 people live in the eastern Hilo and Puna districts. Another 25 percent or so live on the west side, in the richest zip codes in the county, thanks in part to wealthy full- and part-time residents of the upscale resort areas. Kona-side real property values are more than double those on the Hilo side. The Transient Accommodations Tax (otherwise known as the “room tax”) from Kohala Coast resorts alone puts $18 million annually into the state’s coffers. But with “Hilo-centric” state and county government offices, the east side of the island enjoys more public projects and attention.

Kona resident Susan McGeachy has been a proponent of separation for almost 20 years. “We pay the highest rate of taxes in the state and get the least amount of services. After you’ve been hit so much you are just used to it and you take it. The bigger we get, the worse it gets,” she says. 

Hilo news blogger Tiffany Edwards Hunt says the two-county controversy is hard to define.  “It’s not Republican vs. Democrat or Asian vs. non-Asian,” she says.  “This is a clash of cultures but, at the same time, multiple cultures.” Psychological as well as physical distances separate the two sides.

Reed Flickinger, the editor of West Hawaii Today, says, “The likelihood of two counties may be a unifying issue or a rallying cry, but it’s not likely to become a reality in the foreseeable future.” 

Both sides say better solutions might be to hire two county managers, form smaller municipalities or townships, amend the county charter or put more “juice” into community development-plan action committees. 

“It is more important for people to discuss the underlying causes for the disenfranchisement and what can be done to ameliorate that,” says Flickinger. “It may be a worthwhile catalyst for people to be motivated in the community that would not otherwise be involved in politics.”

Councilman Pete Hoffmann, council vice chair, would like to see more people involved in politics, especially educated, qualified, attentive people. “One big criticism of the current bunch of bozos, myself included, is that we allegedly don’t care about the constituents. What guarantee do you have [with two counties] that we won’t have the same level of bozo-ism?”

Apparently, it’s an old argument, one that writer Curtis Narimatsu of the Web site Big Island Chronicle traced back at least as far as 1903, when the Territorial government authorized an East and a West Hawaii County, each with an elected board of supervisors, but “no provision was made for their funding and maintenance.” The Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated the dual counties, and House Bill No. 1 later created the existing Hawaii County government.

Looking even farther back, we see the riff created between Kamehameha I and his cousin Kiwalao, whose father ruled Hawaii.  Before he died, the old chief passed the kingdom to nephew Kamehameha and custody of the war god Kukailimoku and his temples to son Kiwalao. In 1782 when his father died, Kiwalao challenged Kamehameha and was killed in battle. Kamehameha won the lands of Kona, Kohala and northern Hāmākua. Kiwalao’s brother and uncle received Hilo, Puna, Kau and the rest of Hamakua.