WAILUKU - Maui County Council Member Joe Pontanilla began his service as a council member in 2003, staying mostly quiet as the retired GTE Hawaiian Tel Maui manager learned the ropes of county government.
Now, Pontanilla, 70, is still known as being a man of few words. But, he has blossomed into one of the council's leaders, chairing the Budget and Finance Committee for six years and serving as vice chairman for the past two years.
"This lady told me, 'When you first came to the council, you were quiet. We never trust you. You hardly say anything,' " Pontanilla recalled in his office last week. "Then three years (ago) . . . she praised me."
Maui County Council Vice Chairman Joe Pontanilla is leaving the council after serving the limit of five consecutive two-year terms. It got emotional, at times, during his last council meeting Friday in the Council Chambers.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Maui County Council Vice Chairman Joe Pontanilla (left) and Chairman Danny Mateo received many lei and praise from their fellow council members and constituents Friday. They are joined by Council Members Riki Hokama (right) and Mike White.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
He said he has a reputation as being trustworthy.
"When I give my word, I stick with it," Pontanilla said.
And he has grown comfortable about speaking his mind on the council floor.
"After a while, you get to know the system," he said. "You get to know the needs of this county. I'm one person that you can talk to. I have an open-door policy for anybody. Now when I feel passionate about certain things, I'm going to go bullheaded."
Pontanilla and Council Chairman Danny Mateo were buried in lei Friday, during their last council meeting. They received congratulatory resolutions and praise from their fellow council members and constituents.
Pontanilla and Mateo could not seek re-election to the council because of term limits. Pontanilla made an unsuccessful bid for the Central Maui House seat held by Democratic Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran.
Pontanilla's Kahului residency seat on the council will be filled by attorney Don Guzman.
Pontanilla is expected to join the administration of Mayor Alan Arakawa.
He also has not closed the door to seeking public office in the future. "Anything is possible," he said.
Arakawa said last week that he believes that Pontanilla's management skills as a former Hawaiian Tel manager would be put to good use as a Community Development Block Grant specialist.
Arakawa said he couldn't let "talent slip away," adding that Pontanilla "has proven himself to be a very good manager."
Arakawa added that he and his administration have worked closely with Pontanilla on the county budget and noted that "we got the best budget you could get."
Arakawa commended Pontanilla.
"He's got a real big heart," the mayor said, noting that Pontanilla has done a lot for nonprofits and senior citizens.
Looking back, Pontanilla fondly recalls assisting Hale Mahaolu get its approvals for what is now the Hale Mahaolu Ehiku in Kihei and also being able to shepherd along affordable housing projects such as Waikapu Gardens and the Lokenani Gardens affordable senior rental housing project across from the former Ooka Super Market in Wailuku.
But Pontanilla is still disappointed that the Puunoa affordable housing project across from Puamana in West Maui never came to fruition even though the state supported it, but on the county level there were concerns about extra traffic and other issues.
"We couldn't agree," Pontanilla said.
He added that the state was already planning to expand Honoapiilani Highway in the area, which would have helped with traffic issues. He said that the housing prices were reasonable, hovering around $125,000. He said that if people qualified for additional loan help from the county, the cost would have dropped to $110,000.
Pontanilla said he was "disappointed" because Lahaina at the time had no affordable housing.
"It was so passionate for me," he said, adding that as chairman of the committee "any project that has some affordable (component) I'm going to look at it."
Pontanilla served as the Public Works Committee chairman in his second term. Then, council members were able to pass former Council Member Mike Molina's bill on new regulations requiring streetlights and some commercial lighting to be shielded preventing glare in the night sky, causing light pollution and hampering scientists' astronomy work atop Haleakala.
He added that the committee pushed for new equipment for the Department of Environmental Management and put away funds for the integrated solid waste plan that now the county is moving forward with. It will use landfill waste as an alternative energy source.
Pontanilla also was pleased that the committee approved funding to address the flooding problems in Kahului because there were no drainage systems in some neighborhoods.
He said he remembers visiting the Aleo Place neighborhood in Kahului that was prone to flooding with its topography not suited to handle rain water.
Pontanilla said he couldn't believe it when he saw water that covered a van that was parked in the street at Aleo Place. Since then, drainage improvements were added in the area, he said.
Pontanilla said he enjoyed being chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee.
He said he had good mentors in Council Member Riki Hokama, the longtime councilor who also chaired the budget panel, and staff member Michele Yoshimura, former budget director during the administration of former Mayor James "Kimo" Apana.
"They played a big part in me formulating the first couple of budgets," he said.
Pontanilla said the committee had to address how the county would proceed on its projects and operations and address the needs of nonprofit organizations and the community.
"Everyone (is) asking for money. It's a balancing act," he said. "We don't want to raise property taxes if we don't have to. That's the focus I had."
Pontanilla said he monitored the county's borrowing and one of his pet peeves was putting money into the budget and not seeing it used for things such as capital improvement projects.
But, he said, the Arakawa administration is seeing that such funds are being used.
Pontanilla touted the county's highest government bond rating in the state.
The county has achieved that status "because we got our act together. All the other counties, they look at us," he said.
Pontanilla said he's pleased that the county has put money aside for unfunded liabilities for retired employees as well as for benefits for current employees and emergency projects.
While there has been much to be proud of, Pontanilla said one of his last disappointments was the failure to include a 185-acre parcel belonging to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands in Puunene into the growth boundaries of the Maui Island Plan.
The DHHL wanted to have the property placed into a growth boundary for commercial and industrial developments to raise funds for its beneficiaries, Pontanilla said.
In the meetings on the plan, some council members had previously expressed opposition to working with DHHL because of years of unpaid property taxes owed to the county for Hawaiian homesteads.
Pontanilla said he opted to skip a National Association of Counties meeting, of which he is a member of its board, in order to be on Maui to push for the inclusion of the DHHL property into the Maui Island Plan maps.
"Of course, I felt bad; but nothing I can do," he said.
Overall, Pontanilla said leaving the council is "bittersweet" because "in a sense I think I've accomplished a great deal in regarding for providing for the community. I really wanted to have a little more support in certain things but those things happen."
"You got nine guys (on the council) and nine guys think differently, that's the bitter part. All in all what I told the people every election, what I told them I would do, I pretty much done it."
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.