Viewpoint: Auditor should review post office case

I heard a joke recently about how Congress can only do two things: Nothing and overreact.

It is beginning to feel like the Maui County Council is headed in the same direction. Members are overreacting to the rehabilitation of the Old Wailuku Post Office site, and that overreaction will cause our other work to slow down and our ability to work together with the county administration to weaken.

After having spent the last two-and-a-half years working hard and often in close cooperation with the mayor’s team to make sure our community is moving forward, I am saddened. It feels like we are sliding back into the old, dysfunctional ways that created more friction than action. The loser then was, and will again be, the community.

It has been argued that the County Council has a duty to police the process, to protect against malfeasance. If there had been even a whiff of malfeasance in this case, I would be on the front line demanding an investigation. But if the mayor’s administration were actually trying to hide something, it was laughably bad at it. Administration officials met with the council three separate times to inform us that they were going to tear down the post office building. There was no secret that was their intent and, to my knowledge, there was no opposition to it from anyone. Then they tore down the building in the middle of the Wailuku government center, in plain sight of one and all. There was total transparency.

The mayor’s administration was moving quickly because it wanted to replace the building as soon as possible. Speed is required because about half of our departments are now housed in privately owned buildings at a cost of more than $1.5 million a year. Those rental contracts will soon have to be renewed. If a new building could be constructed at High and Wells streets quickly, some of that rental cost would be eliminated. But, sadly, instead of receiving well-deserved praise and encouragement, the administration got the threat of criminal action for its efforts.

I do not believe there was a mistake made. The one word in contention is “rehabilitation.” If you are rehabilitating a building, that might mean renovating it. If you are rehabilitating the property, it could mean removing the building so the property can be better used. The federal Environmental Protection Agency often uses that second definition in its cleanup efforts. I am certain that no one seriously thinks the administration was looking for a way around the County Charter’s requirement for council approval. Administration officials already thought they had it. In fact, so did I (and several of my colleagues, I suspect). If others did not, then why was nothing mentioned during several meetings?

How can such a mistake be made? Consider this. Marion Higa, the state auditor and the paragon of governmental righteousness, recently allowed that her own office had failed to follow the state’s procurement law because of staff oversight (Civil Beat, June 17). Higa is in charge of exposing violations of that same law. No one is accusing Higa of a deliberate violation of the law. But the story shows that if an office run by Higa can make such an honest mistake, then anyone can.

In the council’s Policy Committee discussion on this matter on June 17, it was suggested that everyone involved with the case – the council, the administration, the individual administrators – will need separate legal counsel in the upcoming investigation. Try to imagine what that would cost. Instead of conducting an investigation, the council needs to pass this work to the new county auditor. This case exemplifies why the voters chose to create the auditor’s office. An investigation before a political body like the council can only be one thing – political. What we need in this case is for the auditor to do a thorough, objective review of this issue and report findings to the council. The council can then take whatever remedial action is necessary.

Meanwhile, the council needs to focus its energy on what kind of building we want to put up at High and Wells streets.

* Maui County Council Member Don Couch holds the South Maui residency seat.