Panel chooses to let pay raises for mayor and appointees stand

Salary Commission calls special meeting Friday, then takes no action

WAILUKU — The 12 percent pay raise approved earlier this month for Mayor Alan Arakawa and his department appointees stands after the Maui County Salary Commission took no new action Friday, despite calling a special meeting after questions arose about the nondescriptive agenda item posted for its last meeting.

The panel held a special meeting Friday intended as a “redo” of its Dec. 9 meeting, during which members approved the raises for the mayor and his department directors and deputies. That action came under an agenda that did not specifically say that the nine-member appointed panel would be considering pay raises for Arakawa and his top officials. There was an agenda heading for “deliberation and decision making,” but there were no specifics.

Commission Vice Chairman James Likes, who headed the Dec. 9 and Friday meetings, has said that the panel received legal advice confirming that its actions Dec. 9 could fall under “deliberations” in the agenda, but admitted possible misinterpretations and that the agenda item could have been more specific.

The agenda for Friday’s meeting did note “action on compensation” for the mayor, managing director and deputy managing director, county auditor, and directors and deputy directors of county departments.

But, during the meeting, the panel twice failed to take a vote on the salary increases, caught up in confusion related to Robert’s Rules of Order and complicated motions on amending previous actions.

The panel Friday did decide to defer discussion on the county auditor’s salary for its next meeting, which is scheduled for March.

The lack of action means that the panel’s Dec. 9 decision stands, though Deputy Corporation Counsel Gary Murai noted that the decision “may be subject to challenge.”

“We had an option here to clean it up,” said Commissioner Christian Tackett. “We will get what we will get.”

After the Dec. 9 meeting, the director of the Office of Information Practices, which monitors public access for the state, noted problems with the agenda item.

“It is questionable whether a member of the public could reasonably have understood from the agenda . . . that the Maui Salary Commission would be considering pay raises for Maui County directors and deputy directors,” said Director Cheryl Kakazu Park.

Without a complaint, she could offer only general advice and could not give an opinion on whether there was a violation of the Sunshine Law. Park added that her office does not have the power to void a board action even if a violation were found.

To void the action, someone would have to file a lawsuit within 90 days of the board’s final action.

The pay raises, which are retroactive to July 1, call for Arakawa’s salary to go from $135,696 to $151,980. Department director and deputy salaries vary but the lowest paid director, the director of transportation, will see a salary increase from $107,410 to $120,299.

After Friday’s meeting, Murai said he didn’t know when the mayor and department officials would see their raises, though the commission still needs to send a letter to Arakawa informing him of its decision.

Commissioner Edward Tamori, the lone dissenter on Dec. 9, reiterated Friday that he wanted to look at each department director and their jobs. He noted that maybe all department heads may not need a pay increase.

Likes countered that the commission has spent two years trying to understand the responsibilities of department heads through presentations during commission meetings.

Tackett said he doesn’t think granting 12 percent raises means the top brass earn anything extra. He said the raises are similar to what union workers received and that the cost of living keeps going up, which affects everyone at every level of income.

“When you hold back the top, you hold back the middle. You hold back the middle, you hold back the bottom,” he said.

Water Supply Director David Taylor and Parks Director Ka’ala Buenconsejo testified during Friday’s meeting and did not specifically ask for raises. They did explain how higher salaries could benefit their departments as well as the differences between appointed jobs and civil service jobs.

Taylor said that when he took the director job, he took a pay cut, noting he cannot earn overtime. If he left his job to return to a civil service position, he could reduce his workload and still make a good wage. He advised the commission to consider that there might be no incentive for division heads to move up if they get paid less and to consider comparable salaries in the private sector.

Buenconsejo said he’s on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This means talking to people while shopping with his family.

“There isn’t a place I go on Maui and no one grabs me and talks about something,” Buenconsejo said.

He added that he does not have job security or union protection and that his term is up when the mayor’s term ends. Still, he accepted the job and the responsibility it entails.

“We took that challenge to come here and make a better community,” he said.

Maui County Council Chairman Mike White has been critical of the actions of the Salary Commission, noting in the “Chair’s 3 Minutes” column in The Maui News earlier this month that this is not the best time for raises given the hundreds of workers losing their jobs with the closing of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., Makena Beach & Golf Resort, the Molokai ferry and other small businesses.

While the economic outlook is positive at the moment, economists are suggesting that a downturn could occur as soon as 2018.

At that time, the county would be saddled with the added annual salaries and other benefits. He said that the annual salary obligation for the mayor, his department heads and their deputy directors will total more than $4 million.

Arakawa told the commission that he was “satisfied” with the level of his pay and would not be seeking salary increases for his department heads, even if they deserved them. The mayor was traveling Friday and was unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said.

The last time most administration officials received a raise was in 2014. The commission voted for a 19 percent pay hike for the mayor, effective July 1, 2014. Department directors’ salaries were increased 15 percent, and the commission equalized the salaries of all deputy directors, setting all of their salaries at 90 percent of their directors.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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