Council urged to scrap bill that allows a vote to fire members’ staff

Testifier calls it a ‘power grab’ while Mike White says it ‘is not about politics’

WAILUKU — Calling it “a power grab” and “undemocratic,” dozens of testifiers asked the Maui County Council on Friday to toss out a bill that would allow council members to vote to remove individual members’ staff.

Residents sharply criticized Council Chairman Mike White — who introduced the bill — and said they voted for council members because they trusted them to make decisions, including choosing their own staff.

“Would you allow another hotel to fire one of your employees? Of course not,” said testifier Deb Mader Creagh, taking aim at White’s other job as general manager of the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel. “This bill is bad business for the county. It’s also bad for the council members that we elect.”

Currently, only council members have authority to hire or fire their employees. The council chair can investigate official complaints against a staff member, but it’s up to the council members to take disciplinary action.

In an email to The Maui News on Friday, White said that the bill “is not about politics like it has been portrayed in testimony.” Rather, he said the intention was to ensure employee safety and to start “the conversation regarding taking official action against employees whose actions are not consistent with established workplace policies and the law.”

The issue stemmed from an Oct. 16 letter that White sent to Council Member Alika Atay regarding Atay’s executive assistant, Brian Bardellini. White said he had received “several recent, separate reports” in which Bardellini “was loud, aggressive, intimidating, confrontational and unprofessional towards a council member, the supervising legislative attorney and Office of Council Services staff.

“Mr. Bardellini’s behavior is completely unacceptable in the workplace and will not be tolerated any longer,” White wrote to Atay. “You are aware of his uncivil behavior, including being present when it has occurred, and yet have taken no action to address it.”

The bill also proposes that council aides, who serve under the council chair and have terms of employment that coincide with the term of the council chair, also could be terminated by the council chair or by a vote of the council.

Atay said there has been no evidence to support White’s allegations.

“It is unfortunate the County Council is dealing with these challenges,” Atay’s office said in an emailed statement. “Regardless, there have been some fraudulent accusations that need clarification.

“The Maui County Violence in the Workplace Action Plan provides that such a report be immediately investigated by the chair, the Department of Personnel, and Corporation Counsel; yet to this date there have been no investigations and no notices to our office of any complaints,” the statement says. “In an abundance of caution, we invoked the Uniform Information Practices Act requesting any and all information regarding complaints against Brian Bardellini. This act required Mike White to respond and submit any related complaint documents within 10 days. To date, more than a month later, there has been no response and not a single document or complaint was offered.”

Bardellini did not comment Friday evening but said the statement from Atay’s office reflected his views.

Before he became Atay’s executive assistant, Bardellini was the subject of complaints last year, when state the Department of Agriculture attempted to treat a property Bardellini rented in Haiku that staff said contained fire ants.

An agriculture staffer testified in court that state officials and others who went onto the property were met with yelling and profanity and were threatened by Bardellini. Bardellini’s landlord also said he was verbally aggressive.

Bardellini sought a temporary restraining order against little fire ant crews from trespassing on the property. He claimed the crews threatened and sprayed chemicals on him. His petition for a restraining order was dismissed.

In the Oct. 16 letter to Atay, White said that he “instructed Office of Council Services staff, including Supervising Legislative Attorney Greg Garneau, the legislative attorneys, analysts, secretarial and support staff to no longer communicate with Mr. Bardellini in any way.”

White said staff would interact with Atay alone and that Bardellini would be prohibited from approaching or interacting with council members and their staff without prior permission from the council member.

Because Bardellini has access to Atay’s email, White said it would be difficult to know whether emails from Atay’s office came from Bardellini, so he told Atay that directions to staff must only occur in person and that future emails from Atay’s office would be ignored.

White said when conducting council or committee business, Atay must arrange to meet with staff in person on the seventh floor, where Council Services is located. He prohibited Bardellini from being on the seventh floor and told staff to call police if Bardellini disregarded the instructions.

“If Mr. Bardellini were any employee of the chair’s office or the Office of Council Services, his employment would have been terminated based upon his conduct long ago,” White wrote. “In the past, the employment of other legislative branch employees has been terminated for conduct far less egregious than Mr. Bardellini’s behavior.”

White asked Atay to report back regarding the action taken with Bardellini at close of business on Oct. 20. Council staff said there has not been any communication back to White’s office from Atay’s office.

White said in an email to The Maui News that “if an individual is causing significant anxiety and harassing other staff members and council members, action must be taken.”

“If a council member decides to take no action, despite a valid complaint that has been verified by a proper investigation, there is currently no recourse,” White added. “This begs the question, what about the interests of the victimized employee or constituent that has endured the offensive behavior? The County of Maui, as the employer, has an obligation and duty to protect its employees and to provide a safe and healthy work environment.”

Testifiers Friday spoke out against the bill and White’s handling of the situation. Michael Pasco of Kihei called the move “childish, petty, undemocratic.”

“To think, that with a simple majority vote, a staff member or members of a political opponent could be fired without cause and without due process,” Pasco said. “It could gut the staff of a political opponent leading up to an election.

“This could even be used to try to silence the staff member of one of these duly elected council members.”

Mark Sheehan, who tried to get White impeached earlier this year, wondered if council staff would “all be looking over their shoulders and wondering what’s going to happen to me next?”

“We don’t want this level of intimidation in this council,” Sheehan said. “This is not why we elected you. We elected you to work together and respect each other and respect each others’ assistants.”

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

Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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