Council defers action on MAUIWatch suit

WAILUKU – Maui County Council members continued to grapple with a measure Tuesday to set aside $50,000 to hire outside legal counsel to represent the county in a lawsuit filed by MAUIWatch Facebook page founder Neldon Mamuad.

After recessing into executive session for about an hour, the council deferred the measure Tuesday afternoon to its next scheduled meeting on April 4.

Council Member and Presiding Officer Pro Tempore Mike Victorino, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa and Vice Chairman Robert Carroll, said after the meeting that the matter was deferred because there were not enough members present to vote on hiring special counsel Tuesday afternoon.

A motion to retain or employ special counsel (private attorneys) requires the votes of at least two-thirds of the nine-member council, according to the Maui County Charter.

“Unfortunately we only had five people, and we needed six votes,” Victorino said Tuesday evening.

Baisa and Carroll were both absent and excused due to medical issues. Council Member Mike White, who attended the meeting earlier, was also excused.

Council Member Don Guzman had recused himself, saying that Mamuad is “a friend and also a part-time employee in my office.”

Mamuad, who works as Guzman’s part-time assistant and as a volunteer member of the county Liquor Commission, filed a lawsuit against Maui County on March 3 in U.S. District Court in Honolulu. The lawsuit claims that Mamuad was pressured by the county to stop work on the popular MAUIWatch Facebook page, described as a “crowdsourcing site for traffic information and other news for the island of Maui.”

The Facebook page was launched last summer originally as TAGUMAWatch, a site that encouraged Facebook users to take pictures and post sightings of Maui police officer Keith Taguma.

Taguma filed a harassment complaint against Mamuad, according to the lawsuit, and Mamuad said he was “pressured” by county Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong to rename the page and “shut (it) down altogether.”

Wong said in a committee meeting last week that the county never told Mamuad to take down the MAUIWatch Facebook page.

Wong lobbied Tuesday for funds to hire outside attorneys, saying that not doing so would “put my office in a precarious position.”

He explained last week during the council Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee meeting that there is a need for special counsel because of the potential conflicts of interest. He and Deputy Corporation Counsel Gary Murai are named in the complaint and could be named as defendants. Other attorneys in the office also may become involved as witnesses.

“I’m not certain how my office will be able to respond (to the lawsuit) without violating ethical rules and thereby jeopardizing my licensuree because I’m compromising my client’s representation as an officer in court and as a licensed practitioner,” Wong said Tuesday.

Council members voted to continue deliberations in executive session, saying there were still unanswered questions that may not be discussed in open session because the dispute involves a county employee.

“It’s a matter between a volunteer officer of the county who’s also a county employee, that’s the reason why we went into executive session,” Council Member Don Couch said after the meeting. “And if you look at the complaint, it names Pat Wong, so he can’t represent the county.”

Victorino said that the executive session “gave me a better view on both sides.”

“I haven’t talked to Mamuad so I cannot say I know everything for fact, but I have a much better understanding of what’s going on,” Victorino said.

Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration had originally sought $150,000 to hire Marr Jones & Wang LLP as special counsel in the lawsuit filed against the County of Maui. Council members whittled it down in committee to $50,000 as a mechanism to bring corporation counsel back to the council for updates on the case and to explain the need for more money.

Victorino said that Baisa is expected to return to work Friday and resume her duties as chairwoman during the next scheduled council meeting on April 4.

In other action, council members:

* Passed on first reading a bill that appropriates $150,000 for a grant to the Haiku Community Association for improvements to the Kalakupua Playground.

* Passed on first reading a bill that increases an appropriation for the Aging and Disability Resource Center Expansion grant by $383,576 to a total $820,226. It also allows the center to hire two more positions, for a total of five staff members.

* Passed on second and final reading a bill to amend part of the Maui County Code to establish procedures for the administration of the Economic Development Revolving Fund and require a nonrefundable application processing fee as set forth in the annual budget. Businesses and nonprofit organizations will be able to apply for funding to expand economic development program opportunities in the county.

* Passed on second and final reading a bill to allow the continued operation of the West Maui Boys and Girls Club until Oct. 8, 2047, on approximately 2 acres in agricultural zone at 280 Shaw St. in Lahaina.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at