Four Hawaii County Council members each received a $500 contribution from Airbnb last year, although the source of their money wasn’t obvious.
The contributions to Council Chairman Aaron Chung, Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy and Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz were received in November and December, according to campaign finance reports submitted to the state Campaign Spending Commission by the Jan. 31 deadline.
The short-term vacation rental platform gave the money under an organization dubbed, “Committee to Expand the Middle Class.” Calls to Airbnb and its campaign committee weren’t returned by press-time Friday.
In addition, three council members — Chung, Kierkiewicz and Kohala Councilman Tim Richards — each received $500 contributions from timeshare political action committee ARDA ROC-PAC, “an alliance of owners, developers and managers who are committed to advocating for local, state and federal policies that enable the vacation ownership industry to thrive,” according to its website.
Contributions of this size are not all that common at the County Council level, especially in a nonelection year.
The contributions came a year after the council in November, 2018, passed a vacation rental bill that bans short-term rentals such as those by Airbnb, HomeAway/VRBO and Expedia in many neighborhoods. All of the current council members voted in favor of the bill, which limits the number of rentals operating on the island.
Chung said he knew the connection between the noncandidate Committee to Expand the Middle Class and the vacation rental platform when the check arrived. But he didn’t see accepting it as a problem because the legislation had already been passed.
“The bill that I voted on and voted for and continue to support is contrary to their interest. They probably know my position full well and a check is not going to change anything,” Chung said. “But if their name means anything, I’m sure I support the expansion of the middle class.”
Kierkiewicz, who came on the council after Bill 108 limiting vacation rentals was passed, said she wasn’t expecting a contribution.
“I was actually surprised by the contribution as I’m a freshman legislator and wasn’t involved in deciding on Bill 108,” Kierkiewicz said. “I support a balance in the law — regulations that protect our neighborhoods and housing stock, while providing residents opportunities to be an entrepreneur and contribute to our economy.”
Issues dealing with vacation rentals are sure to come back before the council, however, as the county General Plan now in the works anticipates tweaking vacation rental law as it initiates rules for bed-and-breakfasts.
It’s not against election law to accept money from individuals or groups having business before the council, except in the case of county contracts where the council has appropriation power, at any time between the execution of the contract and the completion of the contract.
Some council members discourage or even return checks from PACs and corporations. That’s especially true when there would be the appearance of a quid pro quo, they said.
“I have turned away quite sizable contributions in the past when there appears to be a nexus with the work we do,” Chung said.
Richards said he has declined campaign contributions as well.
“I believe that most campaign donations are given to support politicians’ election bids from people who agree with an elected official’s thought process though not necessarily with every decision,” Richards said. “I am sure there will always be concerns on peddling of influence, perceived or otherwise, that could occur. I have chosen to try to avoid anything that someone might try to misconstrue.”
Richards also reported receiving $500 from Hawaii Pacific Brokers LLC, a real estate firm based in Waimea.
Other $100-plus contributions to council members last year included Lee Loy’s report of $500 from Leslie Isemoto, president of Isemoto Contracting Co. Ltd, and $500 from T.H.Y. and Associates Inc., a Keaau company making the Locals brand of rubber slippers.
Lee Loy said contributions don’t influence her votes.
“Every vote is rooted in the merits of sound, balanced legislation not a dollar amount,” Lee Loy said.
Political contributions to County Council members are expected to pick up this year, an election year. But some council members, such as Chung, are already sitting pretty, having stocked up over past elections with little or no competition.
Chung’s war chest has topped $25,000, while Richards, at second place, has about $11,000.
North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff said she’s also declined contributions in the past. Eoff, who is term-limited, did not receive any campaign contributions last year. Nor did Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David or Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder.
“No offers so none had to be returned. Different people have made mention of support being available if I asked, but I haven’t asked. Too busy doing the job to be soliciting funds for a campaign,” Villegas, a freshman council member, said. “Fingers crossed I get to run unopposed this round so I can continue focusing on the job and not fund-raising or campaigning.”
Kanealii-Kleinfelder is also a freshman.
“I’m a little different. Doesn’t make sense to use all those funds to make commercials for yourself,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “I’d rather see the money go back the community.”