The Year in Review: Maui County weathers inflation, elections and … – Maui News

Dec 31, 2022
Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino delivers his State of the County address at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s McCoy Studio Theater on March 16. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
From high-profile bribery charges to surging inflation, historic south swells to state championships, Maui County had plenty going on in 2022.
Here’s a look back at some of the stories that made headlines over the past year:
Last of the COVID restrictions end
After nearly two years of COVID-19 health and safety protocols that changed the way that homes, businesses, hospitals, airports and sporting events operated, Maui County officials started to roll back pandemic-related restrictions beginning in 2022.
In February, the county lifted rules requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for indoor service at bars, restaurants and gyms as cases and hospitalizations continued to decline.
Maui County mayoral candidate Richard Bissen waves to supporters after learning he holds a commanding lead following release of the first printout on election night Nov. 8. Standing with him at the campaign party at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center is wife Isabella. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Later, limitations on indoor and outdoor gatherings ended and county campgrounds, parks and other facilities began to reopen.
The indoor mask-wearing mandate as well as vaccination and testing requirements for state and county government workers expired on March 25. That same month, the Safe Travels Program, which had required travelers to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test prior to landing into Hawaii, also ended.
Shortly after, in April, the federal government ended mask mandates for public transportation.
State and county officials continued to monitor the virus as restrictions loosened this year, but the community found some normalcy again as many in-person events and traditions returned.
Public corruption scandals rock Maui
Kanaha Pond suffers from drought conditions on Sept. 28. Drought continued to plague the island in 2022. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
The accusations were explosive — according to federal prosecutors, the Maui County official had accepted more than $2 million in cash, trips to Vegas and other benefits, all in exchange for steering more than $19 million in county contracts to a Honolulu businessman’s wastewater services business. In September, former Department of Environmental Management Director Stewart Stant pleaded guilty to taking the bribes, one of multiple officials undone by investigations into the dealings of H2O Process Systems owner Milton Choy. In December, Wilfred Savella, a former employee of the same department, pleaded guilty to taking more than $40,000 in bribes from Choy.
Charges against Stant, Choy and Savella came just a few months after former Maui state lawmaker J. Kalani English pleaded guilty and was sentenced to over three years in federal prison for taking more than $18,000 in bribes, also from Choy, to influence legislation on cesspools.
The public corruption scandals prompted state lawmakers to make multiple changes, including to rules about fundraising during the legislative session, though they acknowledged the work it will take to win back the public’s trust.
Inflation hits hard, but economy steady
Hawaii residents used to dealing with high costs of living were still hit hard by rising inflation and the global crude oil supply. Everyday costs like groceries grew more expensive, and as businesses tried to cut ties to major oil producer Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, gas prices soared — with AAA estimating that Hawaii’s average for 2022 will likely be $5.14 a gallon, topping the previous record of $4.31 set in 2012.
Defendant Bernard Brown stands next to attorney Randall Hironaka on Aug. 24 as they watch the jury leave the courtroom after final arguments of his murder trial. The jury came back the next day with a guilty verdict. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Sky-high inflation and borrowing rates also discouraged many would-be homebuyers, who were already contending with staggering prices and falling inventory. In June, Maui County homes reached a record-high $1.25 million median sales price. The costs and high mortgage rates began to prompt buyers to delay purchases and sellers to delay listings, pushing down home sales as the year drew to a close.
Even with inflation and the possibility of a recession on the Mainland, economists pointed to Hawaii’s quickly recovering tourism market as key to keeping the islands afloat. Unemployment has dropped far below what it was in the pandemic, and while a pause in economic growth is expected next year, Hawaii may be able to avoid a harsh recession with the return of international travelers and rising construction demand, economists said.
Historic south swell brings surf, flooding
A historic South Pacific swell brought high surf and rough ocean conditions over a weekend in July, leaving beachfront roadways and properties flooded with water and rubble.
“This large south swell is expected to be the largest seen in Hawaii over the last decade,” the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said as the swell approached.
A photo of Moreira “Mo” Monsalve is shown on a courtroom screen in August. A jury found her ex-boyfriend Bernard Brown guilty of murder eight years after Monsalve went missing. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Warnings by the National Weather Service had remained in effect all weekend after predictions that the swell would produce “dangerous breaking waves along south-facing shores,” with surf reaching up to 24 feet and then subsiding to 15 to 20 feet — videos of the high surf crashing over a two-story building on Hawaii island went viral.
Canoe clubs in Kihei rushed to move equipment out of harm’s way, while oceanfront restaurants along Front Street in Lahaina spent the days following the high-wave event cleaning flooded buildings and clearing debris.
Still, surfers from across the island were seen at “Freight Trains” in Maalaea and other popular spots testing their abilities.
The south swell and a Kona low storm in December were among the more intense weather events for Maui in a year that saw a relatively quiet hurricane season with just one tropical cyclone, Darby, that developed as a Category 2 before dissipating south of Hawaii in July.
County Agriculture Department opens
Maui County became the first county in Hawaii to establish its own Department of Agriculture earlier this year, due to a voter-approved charter amendment in the 2020 election. The department launched on July 1, and a few days later, Molokai’s Rogerene “Kali” Arce and Oahu’s Weston Yap were officially appointed to lead the brand-new department as the director and deputy director, respectively.
Victorino counted himself amongst those who had initially opposed the department as more red tape for farmers but ultimately changed his mind as he saw the potential to promote locally grown food in a community that relies heavily on imports.
The Department of Agriculture will have a long list of duties to support local farmers, some of which include helping to develop agriculture infrastructure; create agriculture markets and distribution networks; support agriculture research and development; provide education, outreach and advocacy; provide policy and regulation assistance; promote workforce development; minimize invasive species, pests and threats; promote resource regeneration and protection; and address transportation issues.
Jury finds Brown guilty of murder
Eight years after 46-year-old Maui woman Moreira “Mo” Monsalve went missing, a jury found her ex-boyfriend Bernard Brown guilty of her murder.
The mother of three was last seen the night of Jan. 12, 2014, at Brown’s apartment at Iao Parkside, and was reported missing two days later. Her disappearance sparked widespread community searches, and while her body was never found, some of her belongings were discovered in a park dumpster near the apartments.
The trial, which Brown was extradited from California to face, began Aug. 1 and included about 35 witnesses before it ended with the jury’s verdict on Aug. 25.
Brown’s attorney said it had been “a witch hunt” from the beginning that failed to investigate other suspects, though prosecutors argued Brown’s “mistakes” added up to proof that he murdered her.
“It was eight years of fighting,” Monsalve’s daughter Alexis Felicilda said after the trial. “We got the guilty verdict, which means that I didn’t waste the last eight years of my life.”
Local health care workers go on strike
Two years of the pandemic put a strain on the health care system, and no one felt it more so than the workers. Understaffed and without a contract since 2018, mental health care professionals with Kaiser Permanente statewide went on an open-ended strike in August, saying there weren’t enough workers to handle the thousands of patients, pushing wait times for appointments up to two months.
Kaiser said it’s been working to add behavioral health clinical positions and continuing to recruit. It acknowledged long wait times but also said it had a process in place to support patients with urgent needs and coordinate care. Kaiser called it “unfortunate” that the union had asked employees to walk way from their patients.
With the strike ongoing, workers at Maui Health with two different unions also held informational rallies in November and December to raise concerns about contract negotiations, call for better pay and spotlight the burnout that workers were feeling.
Maui Health, which operates Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital, said that it is working to come to an agreement with the union as well as to recruit more employees, though staffing continues to be an ongoing challenge in the health care industry.
Elections bring new governor, new mayor
With open races for governor and mayor, the 2022 elections were pivotal for Maui County. Retired Judge Richard Bissen and incumbent Mayor Michael Victorino emerged from a crowded field of eight mayoral candidates to square off in the Nov. 8 general election. While Victorino held the advantage of incumbency, Bissen went on to win by a fairly wide margin with 31,381 votes to Victorino’s 19,724, wrapping up a massive campaign effort that saw the two candidates combine for more than $1 million in fundraising.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, meanwhile, one of the heavy favorites to succeed two-term Gov. David Ige, defeated Vicky Cayetano and U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele in the Democratic primary in August. He and longtime state House Rep. Sylvia Luke went on to beat Republican candidates Duke Aiona and Seaula Tupa’i Jr. for the offices of governor and lieutenant governor.
Maui County voters also approved more than a dozen charter amendments proposed by the Charter Commission that convenes every 10 years. Some of the major changes approved included the creation of an East Maui Community Water Authority, the separation of the Department of Housing and Human Concerns and a new Department of ‘Oiwi Resources, as well as a plan to transition the county to a bilingual government in the next few years.
Fond farewell to mom-and-pops
Maui lost a few longtime local businesses this year, including the Kobayashi family’s Maui Potato Chip Factory, which had been operating for the past 66 years in Kahului before closing its doors on Dec. 15.
The family-owned-and-operated factory was established in January 1956 and survived three moves, natural disasters, recessions and a pandemic, and quickly sold out of its “Kitch’n Cook’d” chips when loyal customers learned of the closure. 
“For us to have survived 66 years is more a triumph of community to take care of the local people here, the local companies,” third-generation owner, operator and potato chip maker Mark Kobayashi had said during the last week of business. 
It was also a sad day for Martha Haleakala when she made the final decision in March to close Kobe’s Japanese Steak House for good after 36 years. Despite surviving two years of the pandemic and being financially stable, there were not enough chefs to continue operations in Lahaina.
This also meant the closure of Oku’s Sushi Bar run by Norihiro Okumura inside Kobe’s.
Toward the end of 2022, rumors broke out on social media that Fukushima Store in Haiku might be shuttering for good, too. The potential closure of another mom-and-pop shop shocked the community, and many flocked to the decades-old general store to eat what might be their last savory red hot dog topped with secret sauce.
Fukushima’s closed for the holidays on Dec. 23 and second-generation owner George Fukushima did not confirm whether or not the shop would reopen.
Mauna Loa erupts again after 38 years
Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano located on Hawaii island, erupted for the first time in 38 years in November. Rising 13,679 feet above sea level, Mauna Loa had lava oozing from the crater and vents along the volcano’s northeast flank, located far from homes and communities, though it still raised some concern among public officials as it crept closer to the Daniel K. Inouye Highway.
The red-and-orange glow from the lava could be seen from high points in the Valley Isle. For Maui residents, there were some concerns for families and friends on Hawaii island during the time of the eruption and lava flow, and for the potential health risks associated with vog drifting to neighboring islands.
Scientists said on Dec. 13 that both Mauna Loa and Kilauea had stopped erupting, bringing to a close a spectacle that drew crowds of people lining the roadways to watch the lava from afar.
MIL celebrates state champs
The King Kekaulike boys soccer team made school history after they delivered a resounding 3-1 win over Hilo during the Division I Niu Health Urgent Care/HHSAA state tournament in March — Na Alii’s first final-round appearance.
It was also the first outright boys soccer state championship for the MIL and the first D-I outright state crown for a Neighbor Island school after Baldwin and Hawaii Prep shared the 2018 title when lightning halted a tie championship match.
It was also a banner year for the Maui Preparatory Academy athletics department. In February, the Maui Prep boys basketball team completed a 17-0 run to win the Heide & Cook/HHSAA Division II state title with a 65-35 win over Kaimuki.
This crown marks the first of any kind for the tiny Napili campus and the second boys state championship in basketball in 40 years for Maui. It was also the largest margin of victory in the history of the Division II state final.
Later in the year, Na Pueo earned its first-ever state boys team title, finishing with a 38-over-par 606 total — their 38-stroke margin of victory over second-place Punahou is the largest since at least 2006.
It was just the sixth state team golf title ever for a MIL golf team, boys or girls.
Na Alii make championship run
The King Kekaulike High School football team came back from the ashes to reach the school’s second state title game and first since winning the Division II state crown in 2006.
Na Alii won five games for the first time since 2009 and advanced to the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Division II state championship game, where it fell to Waimea 45-6.
For a school that had a 4-55 record from 2014-21, it was an accomplishment for the ages, especially after going 0-6 in 2021.
The death of assistant coach Clarence Rivers in October galvanized the team with the battle cry “this one is for Coach C.” Rivers was a former head coach for the team and had served on the football staff since 1996, the second year of the program.
The absence of longtime athletic director P.K. Higa was also a motivating factor for the team. He has not worked this academic year due to undisclosed reason, but he attended the state championship game on Oahu.
Junior quarterback Kalelepono Wong was named the MIL Offensive Player of the Year in voting by the league’s coaches. Head coach Tyson Valle was named MIL Coach of the Year.
Kurt Suzuki retires from MLB
Baldwin High School graduate Kurt Suzuki’s remarkable 16-year Major League Baseball career ended with several friends and family from Maui in attendance.
Suzuki’s MLB career ended where it started — he was drafted by Oakland in the second round in 2004 after leading Cal State Fullerton to an NCAA title. He made his majors debut with the A’s in 2007.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into a decision like this,” Suzuki said. “You know, obviously I’ve been playing baseball my whole life. This is all I’ve ever known. So, it was not a decision that you can make overnight, be like, ‘You know what? I’m done.’”
Suzuki won a World Series with the Washington Nationals in 2019 and was an All-Star with Minnesota in 2014.
Suzuki left MLB 32nd all-time in games caught — he played 1,540 games behind the plate. Suzuki is 25th all-time in MLB innings caught, with 12,968 1/3.
Among Hawaii-born major leaguers, Suzuki is the all-time leader in hits (1,421), games (1,635), plate appearances (6,163), at-bats (5,563), walks (387), doubles (295), home runs (143) and RBIs (730).
Major sporting events return
A sense of normalcy returned to the Maui sports scene as major events like the Maui Jim Maui Invitational returned to the Lahaina Civic Center after spending 2020 in Asheville, N.C., and 2021 in Las Vegas due to the pandemic.
Local sports from the Maui Interscholastic League to canoe paddling also made their returns in 2022 after being called off in 2020 and limited in 2021.
The MIL showed its muster behind the collective work of the high school athletic directors when it hosted five state tournaments in a two-week span in May — tennis for boys and girls, girls golf, boys golf, Division II softball and Division I baseball.
The Maui Marathon that draws thousands of runners and spectators worldwide finally returned to the streets after a two-year hiatus amid the COVID-19 pandemic, celebrating not only its comeback, but also the 50th year on island.
One event that never left the Valley Isle, the Sentry Tournament of Champions at the Kapalua Plantation Course, saw unprecedented scoring when Cam Smith won at 34-under par, Jon Rahm was second at 33 under and Matt Jones was 32 under — all breaking the PGA Tour scoring record of 31-under par set here by Ernie Els when he won the event in 2003.
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