Councilors advance a MAUIWatch settlement
A Maui County Council committee recommended Wednesday to authorize a settlement of a federal lawsuit in which county administration officials were alleged to have violated an employee’s First Amendment right to free speech in a case involving the popular MAUIWatch Facebook page.
Neldon Mamuad, a part-time executive assistant to Council Member Don Guzman and a volunteer Liquor Control Commission member, maintained in a federal lawsuit that county officials pressured him to stop work on his MAUIWatch Facebook page. County officials say they investigated a complaint filed by Maui police officer Keith Taguma and found that Mamuad violated the county’s violence in the workplace action plan by administering the website, formerly called TAGUMAWatch.
Members of the council’s Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee discussed the lawsuit behind closed doors in an executive session Wednesday afternoon.
When they emerged, they voted to recommend the full council adopt a resolution authorizing the county Department of the Corporation Counsel to settle the case “under the terms set forth in an executive session.”
The vote was 6-1, with Council Member Mike Victorino the only dissenting vote. Guzman recused himself from the vote and was absent and excused. Robert Carroll was absent and excused.
“I voted my conscience,” Victorino said late Wednesday afternoon.
He said he had been told that Mamuad’s attorneys, including those with the American Civil Liberties Union, were working pro bono (undertaken for the public good without charge) and “then, all of a sudden, we’re paying money out for attorneys.”
“I was very disappointed about that. Tell me one thing, then come back with something else,” he said. “The people of Maui don’t deserve that.”
Victorino said he could not disclose the amount proposed to pay the attorneys because that was discussed in the committee’s closed-door session. He also said he could not disclose other terms of the proposed settlement.
The conflict between Mamuad and county administration officials should never have escalated to the point of a federal lawsuit, he said.
“I think it was ridiculous,” he said. “People didn’t exercise common sense.”
Victorino said he was not blaming one party or the other because “everybody shared equally in a lot of different areas.”
One of the “whereas” clauses of the resolution says that authorizing settlement would be “to avoid incurring expenses and the uncertainty of a judicial determination of the parties’ respective rights and liabilities.” It says the county would “attempt to reach a resolution of this case by the way of a negotiated settlement or offer of judgment.”
Earlier this month, the County Council authorized the county administration to spend up to $50,000 to hire a private attorney to represent county officials in the lawsuit. County lawyers, who had come under fire themselves in the lawsuit, were unable to represent the county because they had a conflict of interest.
Victorino said he understood that “not even a third” of the authorized amount for private attorneys fees has been spent on the case so far.
The MAUIWatch Facebook page, now a website for traffic and other breaking news, began last summer as TAGUMAWatch, a page dedicated initially to observations of Taguma. The longtime police officer has gained notoriety for being “prolific” in writing traffic citations in Central Maui.
In his lawsuit, Mamuad said he only agreed to change the website’s name in August after he was pressured to do so by Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong.
The lawsuit reported that Taguma complained about online postings of his sightings and alleged Mamuad was harassing him by using his name and photo without his permission and by encouraging others to submit photos of him and comments about him.
Mamuad was eventually found to have violated the county’s Violence in the Workplace Action Plan. He was required to enroll in an employee assistance program aimed at addressing harassment and cyberbullying.
The lawsuit sought a federal court order prohibiting Maui County from interfering with Mamuad’s right to speak freely. The complaint also asked for a court order declaring the county’s actions unconstitutional and ordering the deletion of any disciplinary action on Mamuad’s employment records.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.