Panel to await county auditor before acting on post office

A Maui County Council committee Monday decided to wait and see if the county auditor, who is still assembling his new office, will take up the Old Wailuku Post Office demolition controversy in a move that could put the investigation on hold until the new year.

Following the lead of committee Chairman Riki Hokama, the council Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee agreed to defer action on the investigation until Auditor Lance Taguchi unveils his list of audits for the rest of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Taguchi said Monday that he will be assembling his plan of audits by early January at the latest. He did not want to definitely agree to an audit of the Old Wailuku Post Office issue.

“I am still uncomfortable committing to the audit at this time,” said Taguchi, who was selected for the post in late June.

“I understand the requirements of the council,” he said. “At the same time, I must have enough time to develop the plan of audits.”

If the plan of audits does not include the Old Wailuku Post Office, Hokama said in a memo to committee members that the panel may re-evaluate its options then.

The controversy stems from the demolition of the Old Wailuku Post Office earlier this year. Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration has conceded and apologized for using funds earmarked for the rehabilitation of the building for its demolition and for the planning of a new county campus – without amending the budget request in the council. The council has since embarked on an investigation into the demolition.

“I think we should lower the temperature of this issue,” said Hokama, noting the monthslong break in the action on the issue.

He believes the county auditor to be the best positioned and possessing the necessary powers to conduct “a full and fair inquiry into the potential misuse of county funds.” The county auditor has “greater flexibility” than the council in this investigation and has the power to subpoena witnesses and to compel the release of documents, Hokama said.

There was talk in the council’s committee meeting last week about hiring a third-party auditor to keep the process moving. Hokama argued for waiting and leaving the issue in the county auditor’s hands, saying Taguchi would have more flexibility than a third-party auditor and citing the cost of hiring an independent auditor, which Taguchi told the council last week could run between $80,000 and $100,000.

Hokama indicated that an audit would provide an end-game to this controversy.

The county auditor’s findings could lead to a termination of the investigation or yield recommendations on code or charter changes that could prevent such an occurrence from happening again, the panel chairman told the committee.

Although the mayor has conceded an error, Hokama said that “the council now has a duty to investigate how the charter deviation occurred and establish procedures to avoid similar deviations in the future.”

Hokama said that he “sleeps well at night” knowing that he’s “doing the right thing.”

The committee chairman noted that it was the administration’s mistake “that is causing the delay and added costs to the people of this county.” The administration has urged the council to approve a budget amendment so that it can proceed with plans for an office building on the Old Wailuku Post Office site that would save the county on rental costs.

Council Member Mike White chimed in that the council “did not initiate the wrongful action” but is being left to investigate it. Had the proper procedure been followed, the county would be 15 months into the building process, he said.

Several council members asked whether the investigation and efforts to build the new office building could continue simultaneously. Hokama said that he believed that the investigation and the new building project could move forward together.

But White, who heads the council Budget and Finance Committee, which is taking up the new building, was more cautious. He said in an email to The Maui News that a decision has not been made yet on the budget amendment on the Kalana O Maui Campus Expansion project.

“The legal implications relating to the matter are being evaluated to ensure that the pending investigation is not impaired,” White said.

“Under the charter, the council is the taxpayers’ representative. We have the responsibility to ensure that public funds are spent for lawful, public purposes,” White said.

“While we all wish to move the project forward, we cannot lose sight of the seriousness of the actions being investigated.”

* Lee Imada can be reached at