WAILUKU - Board members of the embattled Wailuku Main Street Association appealed to the Maui County Council on Wednesday to restore their $243,000 county grant, saying they had been "good stewards" of taxpayer dollars.
Officials with the organization said Wailuku Main Street had been unfairly attacked by its detractors, including county officials, The Maui News and two former board members.
Wailuku Main Street is under investigation by the state Department of the Attorney General for possible violations of Hawaii's nonprofit laws, after two former board members said Executive Director Jocelyn Perreira had refused to provide them with key documents and information about the organization's operations and finances.
Board Chairman Tom Cannon said again on Wednesday that the claims made by Sam Clark and Brian Sarasin were false, describing them as "disgruntled" former board members who only wanted to undermine the organization. He said information had never been withheld from them.
"That was not true," he said.
He has previously said that the information they wanted was available but they did not follow the proper procedures to access it.
But three additional former board members have come forward to say they also were denied access to records by Perreira, or had seen her withhold documents from others.
"I definitely would agree that information was withheld from them," said former board member George Rixie.
He said he was present when Clark and Sarasin requested
financial and organizational records, and he confirmed that they were refused.
"I know they had a lot of resistance, and initially were told they couldn't have access to the information," he said.
Former Treasurer Carl Griffith said he also was denied access to records.
He said he and other board members were provided with monthly financial reports but were never given access to invoices, receipts, bank records or any other documentation that could validate the reports. He also was unable to get a copy of the organization's bylaws.
"There were things you wanted that sometimes you just couldn't get, period," he said. "They said, 'If you need to see it, come in and see it (in the office).' And there were times you'd go in and they'd say, 'It's not available right now, we'll get it to you some other time.' "
Perreira also tried to control the flow of information, he said, such as by telling board members it was against the rules for them to contact each other directly, and that all emails had to go through her.
Wailuku landowner Jonathan Starr said he experienced similar problems when serving on the board more than 10 years ago.
"It was very difficult and in many cases impossible to access the information," he said. "I had to request the documents, and then I would be handed it for a few minutes and be told to give it back."
He also said it was hard to figure out what the organization was actually doing, and that most of the money seemed to be going for "overhead."
He said he resigned from the board after a few months.
"I didn't want to be responsible for something that didn't seem right," he said.
Last month, Mayor Alan Arakawa proposed eliminating Wailuku Main Street's grant from the county budget, instead proposing that the same amount of money be set aside for small-town planning services, which is what the organization is supposed to be providing.
Arakawa said at the time that the change would allow the county to continue its support for small towns until the attorney general's investigation is resolved.
County officials also have refused to release any additional payments on the organization's current grant after saying it was not providing an adequate accounting of how it was spending taxpayer dollars, why it had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in unspent funds or what it was accomplishing.
The County Council Budget and Finance Committee is not expected to review Wailuku Main Street's grant request until Monday, but a number of the organization's board members and officials turned out at the meeting Wednesday to make their request for funding.
"We are good stewards of government taxpayer funding," Perreira said.
She noted that the organization had received clean annual audits and said it was using its "reserve" of accumulated funds to benefit small towns.
Wailuku Main Street is "continuing the work and important services that affect the viability and preservation of Maui's small towns," she said.
Cannon said the organization had worked out an agreement with the previous county administration for the kind of information it needed to provide about its finances and activities.
Now "the new planning director has come up with a new methodology, unilaterally," he said.
He said the county was "trying to redirect our funds to outside consultants," via the Maui Redevelopment Agency.
Current Treasurer Amy Hanlon said the organization had been mischaracterized.
"I take exception when I read in the paper that our finances are in a shambles, because they aren't," she said.
Board member Madelyn D'Enbeau said she became involved with the organization when it empowered residents and merchants in Makawao to resist the development of a major commercial center in the area more than 20 years ago.
She said it provided an important outlet for residents who might be intimidated from speaking their minds to the Planning Department.
"I just feel it does a wonderful job of listening to the grass roots," she said.
Board member Bill Frampton agreed.
"It's nice to have the professionals (who volunteer their services), but the connection to the grass roots . . . is probably the top value we offer," he said.
Board member Richard Dan said Perreira had a "relentless passion for Wailuku" and had provided assistance to his business when he requested it.
Board member Artemio Baxa said Wailuku Main Street "represents an independent, objective voice of the community."
He urged council members to disregard Arakawa's recommendation and restore direct funding to the organization.
"The life of this community lies in your hands," he said.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.