Liquor commission to reconsider changes
Public hearing set for 10 a.m. Wednesday
After months of public backlash, the county Liquor Control Commission will take another look Wednesday at rules allowing 24-hour liquor sales, hostess bar caps and home delivery of alcohol — all changes that residents have said were put in place without public input and will hold consequences for the community.
The public hearing will take place at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the Department of Liquor Control conference room in the David K. Trask Building in Wailuku. After testimony, the commission will hold its regular monthly meeting and could make a decision on the rules or defer to a future date.
“Tomorrow is an opportunity to undo a misstep,” said Mahina Martin, who helped found the Coalition to Repeal 24-Hour Liquor Sales. “The liquor department’s policies and actions have far-reaching effect. Outside of the obvious functions related to the business sector, the department has a role to play to support the overall well-being of our community.”
Before the liquor commission made its changes, the department posted an agenda and published a notice in The Maui News. But the lack of description and public input, and the fact that Director Glenn Mukai characterized the rules as “mostly housekeeping” upset many residents.
“A classified ad announcing the meetings, small meeting room, daytime hearings that require people to take time off of work, being told that the commissioners and director aren’t available — all send a message of disregard to our community,” Martin said.
On Feb. 8, the commission adopted rules that would allow 24-hour liquor sales at retail stores and hotels, making Maui County the first in the state to do so. The rules also removed the decadeslong cap on the number of hostess bars and allowed the home delivery of alcoholic beverages. On Feb. 21, Mayor Alan Arakawa signed the bill into law.
Many people “were startled” by the new rules, Martin said. In March, Kihei resident Madge Schaefer filed a complaint with the state Office of Information Practices. Families of drunken-driving victims, survivors of addiction, law enforcement and social services officials held a rally in April and testified en masse before the liquor commission in May, saying that the changes heightened the risk of alcohol-influenced incidents.
“We spoke with businesses who were startled to have the laws changed and scrambled to get prepared,” Martin said. “The general public is feeling left out. And even the police were caught off guard.”
On May 5, Schaefer and the Committee for Responsible Liquor Control filed a lawsuit to repeal the changes and claimed that the commission had not given proper notice. The flood of complaints led the commission to vote unanimously May 10 to reconsider the rules, including returning to a ban on the sale of liquor from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
But the department and commission’s woes continued when nonprofit officials started raising complaints about rules that they also said were enacted without public notice. In order to get a liquor license for one-day events, nonprofit organizations must now follow a long list of steps that include submitting background checks for board members and listing auction items several days in advance — steps that directors said were out of touch with the realities of nonprofits.
Mukai said that the department was just following state rules. But the attorney general’s office said background checks weren’t a requirement, and none of the other county liquor departments were making nonprofits follow those rules.
“I know that they’re saying they’re just following the law,” said Debbie Cabebe, chief executive officer of Maui Economic Opportunity and president of the Maui Nonprofit Directors Association. “But I think there could’ve been discussion ahead of time. It just seemed punitive and nobody really understands why.”
Cabebe said Mukai reached out to some of the nonprofit groups and plans to meet with them today. She added that there are at least 25 nonprofits who have prepared letters of complaint to send to the commission. Already, some are having challenges planning events under the new rules, Cabebe said. The issue of special licenses for nonprofit groups could come up Wednesday, though the agenda does not say the commission will take action.
As for the lawsuit, Schaefer said it depends on what happens Wednesday.
“We would be happy to have a settlement, but if not, we’ll go to court,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer said that even if the commission repeals the rules, one issue still remains.
“How do you repeal something that was passed illegally?” she said. “These three items were done without the opportunity for the public to scrutinize or participate in this change in public policy. The lawsuit is a challenge to the issue of: was the Sunshine Law followed? And it is our firm belief that it was not.”
Deputy Director Mark Honda declined to comment Tuesday on what the department could do to repair its relationship with community members frustrated with the lack of transparency. He also declined to comment on why the department continued to take steps that seemed to lack public input.
“It’s been a challenge for the private sector, the public sector and the government sector which could have been avoided six months ago with (a) more inclusiveness process from the get-go,” Martin said. “We appreciate the efforts of many to add their voice to this issue. And that’s been at the core of this whole issue — minimizing the public’s voice when it comes to laws we end up dealing with down the road.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.