The first journalism-trained Maui County Information and Complaints officer since Charley Young had the job in the 1950s - at the same time he wrote for The Maui News - worked out of a tiny, one-desk office on the ninth floor of the county building. The space once had been a mailroom.
The main purpose of the position was to turn out press releases while fielding complaints, usually from malihini. Locals went straight to Mayor Elmer F. Cravalho. It wasn't hard. Just show up or give him a telephone call. In the 1970s, Cravalho had all the answers. The county, population 46,000, was small and Cravalho kept up with everything the county did and didn't do.
The press releases involved publicizing county programs and projects. It was an easy gig. Women in the Mayor's Office loved the fact they didn't have to do any typing. They were used to male bosses hand drafting stuff, getting it typed, editing the result and then having the missive retyped. Years of working in newsrooms made the Information and Complaints guy an expert typist.
Press releases were cranked out on an IBM typewriter, Xeroxed, initialed by the mayor and hand-delivered to the island's newsrooms. It took less than two hours by motorcycle to hit The Maui News, the Honolulu Advertiser, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the weekly Maui Sun, KMVI, KNUI and KAOI.
To give you an idea of how small county government was in those days, the number of Xerox copies came to the attention of Finance Director Masao Muraoka. He kept a tight rein on the $22 million county budget with a 28-person staff, including one each for Molokai and Lanai.
"Is it necessary to Xerox the press releases?" he once asked. "Couldn't you just use carbon copies?" Muraoka didn't mention the subject after hearing a simple fact. The third through seventh carbon copies would be unreadable. (Ask an old-timer if you've never heard of carbon paper.)
During a 1976 interview, Muraoka said, "This office has to have a complete overview of the entire picture . . . we must give the best return for the tax dollar."
By chance, I ended up as the Information and Complaints officer. A freelance writing job for the Maui County Commission on Aging under Robert Yokoyama led to a writing job with the Department of Parks and Recreation under Jan Dapitan. That led to writing a county annual report and Cravalho offering me the PR job and the chance to join Paul Mancini, Dapitan, Chris Hart and Bob McCorriston as the only haole in the building.
In addition to writing and telling malihini they weren't "back home," the job also involved leading tours through the building. Being something of a smart mouth, I'd ask those on the tour, "Who owns all of this?" Most of the time the answer was "the county." "Nope," I'd say. "It belongs to you."
To stay clear of politics, I chose to think I was a hired technician working for the public. The mayor was my supervisor, but it was my job to forge closer links between county government and the general public. That idea led to the creation of a column in The Maui News - "Maui County Q&A." It was published every week once then-Managing Editor Earl Tanaka was convinced I could keep it going. Tom Stevens took my photo that went with the column.
All of this came to mind after seeing the latest column added to Monday's edition of The Maui News - "Ask The Mayor," in which "Mayor Alan Arakawa answers some of the most-asked questions submitted to his office staff." It's doubtful he does the actual writing.
In the case of "Maui County Q&A," most of the questions came legitimately into the Information and Complaints Office. On those weeks when the column needed filling out, a question and answer would be dreamed up in an effort to educate the public about this or that aspect of county government and its responsibilities. Then, as now, there was persistent confusion about which government agency did what to whom. Many of the questions involved state agencies. Malihini were nonplussed when they learned there were no municipal or township governments, just the feds, the state and the county.
Any attempt to educate the public about government is worthwhile. That's one of the main jobs of newspapers and broadcast newsrooms. It can also be a job taken on by government. Just "Ask The Mayor."
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.