Thursday, December 2, 2010


THE VISION OF A WARRIOR BOLD: In the week since former Kaua`i County Council Chair Kaipo Asing’s parting speech before the council we’ve heard two distinctly different trains of thought on its content.

On one side are those who, for the most part, have come to see Kaipo as a cynical, manipulative tyrant who got his just deserts. On the other are those who remember a hard working incorruptible public servant who was unfairly smeared by recent attacks.

But the reality is that it’s not a matter of a little of both but really a matter of none of the above.

Asing’s speech centered around one word, pronounced in his inimitable syllable-by-syllable manner, - Rep-u-ta-tion- and how his had been unfairly sullied.

But really there are few if any who questioned his when it came to “doing his homework” or doing what he thought was best for the community.

To the end he continued to inform and amaze, with precision, during his numerous “presentations”- always well researched, always- whether you agreed with his conclusion or not- right on point.

The real narrative is that the arc of Asing’s career in politics was a story of the last of a breed of “uniquely Kaua`i” leaders who accepted the notion that the ends justify the means and that the less people knew of how the sausage was made the better it was for all involved.

When Kaipo was a young buck, county leadership made decisions around a back room table, in the dark. “Sunshine” wasn’t even a troublesome concept yet- it wasn’t on anyone’s radar. People’s names weren’t to be spoken in a derogatory manner- even when they had shamed themselves there wasn’t a need to shame them further.

A archetypical example of this was when the council was asked to “write off” a list of uncollectible sewer accounts. The council took up the matter without mentioning the names of the delinquents.

But when someone from the public came up to testify- suggesting that perhaps if the names were read it would discourage future non-payments- and attempted to read the names in front of the camera, Kaipo slammed down his gavel for a recess, demanding the cameras be shut down before the names could be read.

It’s still a tradition today, one which, for better or worse- Kaipo would always go to the mat to perpetuate. It didn’t matter that it was a topic of public record and that the speaker had a right to do it, he was protecting “his” community members.

While Kaipo was a rebel when it came to the issues of the day he was never saw anything wrong with “the process.” He sat there, year after year, doing his presentations- all without TV cameras and with little or no coverage in the local newspaper- and winding up on the losing end of 6-1 votes.

Yet he never questioned the process. The council chairs were elected by the councilmembers who were in turn elected by the voters and so were entitled to the power of the chair- and on Kaua`i that was, and is, the ultimate power legislatively.

While there may have been bad people who took advantage of their power- like when Bryan’s uncle Tony Baptiste ran the county from a jail cell- Kaipo was a straight shooter, an honorable man who did what he did in service to the public. In his eyes there wasn’t anything wrong with the process- there were only bad people who abused the process.

On Kaua`i- the “separate kingdom”- the way the council has always been set up is that, unlike in other places, the individual office of “council ‘person’” doesn’t exist, subsumed by the all-encompassing concept of “council ‘member’”- just one part of the whole.

That’s not just a concept without repercussions or a differentiation without a difference. In fact it makes all the difference in the world.

For a clue, just look at the stationary that councilmembers use. Individuals don’t have letterhead that reads “The Office of Councilperson Keone Kanaka” but instead it announces “The Office of the County Council, Kimo Santos, Chair.

That means everything because it is carried over into practice too. Unfathomably, councilmembers have no individual assigned staff, even though there are dozens of positions in council services. They don’t even have part-time equivalents.

No office manager, no legislative analyst, not even a file clerk or “secretary”. If you need some staff time, it comes via a request of the chair who doles it out, usually on the basis of alliances.

Have you ever seen a Kaua`i councilperson call a press conference and announce he or she is going to introduce a bill or resolution? Of course not- they wouldn’t dare. Yet it a common occurrence everywhere else.

That’s why in 2008, when there was actually a split vote on the chair and two “factions” emerged, many long time council watchers were shocked. Even though those factions and alliances had existed they were never overt or even acknowledged and so were shifting, with the chair maintaining the power over each member's legislative agenda.

Through more than 20 years Kaipo became entrenched in that system and waited. And waited. And then it was his turn.

Asing never jumped at the chance to become chair either. Rather it was thrust upon simply him in a leadership void- there was simply no one left on the council who had any experience.

Recently departed at the time were then Chair, now State Senator, Ron Kouchi, now Circuit Court Judge Randall Valenciano, former State Senator Gary Hooser and former Mayor Bryan Batiste.

But rather than be the caretaker chair, as many thought he would be, Asing soon came to see that it was “his turn”. He had waited patiently though the years while others stepped on his legislative options and now he liked what he had- access to all the staff time he needed for his “presentations,” the ability to set the legislative agenda and all the other perks of power.

The times were ripe. All of his issues that had him on the losing end of those 6-1 votes were now consensus positions of the community- wise and slow growth and development, access to the mountains and beaches and many others.

But one more issue was lurking... open and transparent governance.

Many say Kaipo changed when he became chair. But in fact it was the times that changed, not Kaipo.

All of a sudden it wasn’t good enough to do what was, in his judgment, best for the island. All of a sudden what had been done without scrutiny was now on televisions. All of a sudden executive sessions weren’t called by just saying “we’re going into executive session- everybody out” but had to comply with the sunshine law with specific items and reasons for closing those doors on an agenda published six days in advance.

His judgment was called paternalism. His actions were analyzed in minutia and, many times taken out of context by TV viewers who dropped in and out of the cablecasts. What formerly was “sparing the people the view of the sausage making” was now a “cabal of secrecy” and what used to be the “face” of unity among “council ‘members’” was now denying the rights of individual “council ‘persons’”.

Then they called him a minotaur- a half-bull, half-man who loved the dark and would do what was wrong as long as he could.

It had all crystallized around the infamous ES-177 when the council went behind closed doors to discuss the police department and apparently went beyond the scope of the agendaed item according to the Office of Information Practices, leading to a court battle won by Asing in a Pyrrhic victory that battered and bruised his “rep-u-ta-tion.”

Then there was the ousting of Police Commissioner Mike Ching where Asing himself filed the ethics complaint and directed the outcome, including the squelching of exculpatory documents from Ching’s ethics hearing. It was another victory that left him with his “rep-u-ta-tion” muddied.

Apparently Asing never heard the quip about what happens when you wrestle with a pig- you both get dirty and the pig likes it.

Through it all Asing never changed as the times changes around him. Even when two councilmembers exposed the problems of the all encompassing “council ‘member’” system to the light of day, he still didn’t give an inch.

The dissidents didn’t even ask for a change in the way they were denied staff and in fact denied an “office”- not in the physical office sense but in the meaning conveyed in “Office of Councilperson So and So.”

All they asked for was unfettered access to the agenda and the posting of public documents on the internet.

But Asing- who had never accommodated the information age and in fact to his last day in office had his email printed out for him- didn’t change as the world around him did.

Those who came in from foreign climes at the end of the movie couldn’t possibly appreciate a leadership style firmly entrenched in traditions of the past. In fact, Asing himself can’t, to this day, appreciate the irony of possibly being the last of his lineage of leadership.

Like Miniver Cheevy, Kaipo Asing was born too late. And the tragedy is that his legacy will be that he changed when he became chair when all he did was stay true to who he had always been.


We’re on the road tomorrow- be back Monday.


Gary Hooser said...

Well written Andy - for the most part:)Though I do not agree with all of your viewpoints on all of the specific events (after all we each were different colored glasses), I do think you made some interesting points with regards to motivations and historical context. Also, I agree 100% that it is truly nutso that individual councilmembers do not have their own staff. Having all staff work come out of council services and all of that essentially directed by the clerk and the chair...if far too much centralization of power. gh

Gary Hooser said...

In the House and Senate, each member has a set staff budget and you hire who ever you want within that budget. That staff person works for you and you alone. They become familiar with your style and priorities, they communicate with constituents when needed, help you draft Bills, conduct research, work on long term projects etc. The Chair still controls the agenda at the state level but not the core staffing of the elected member.