WAILUKU - A Maui County Council committee held off hiring private attorneys Friday to look into an allegation brought forward by a council member over the potential misuse of public funds to demolish the Old Wailuku Post Office.
The committee deferred the matter until June 17, when Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee Chairman Riki Hokama said he would come up with a proposal for an investigation into the spending of funds by the administration of Mayor Alan Arakawa.
Most of the nine committee members said they would support some kind of inquiry before taking the next step to hire private counsel to represent the County Council. The resolution to hire special counsel remained pending before the committee.
The site of the Old Wailuku Post Office at the corner of High and Wells streets is lined and nearly ready for motorists to park their cars. The recent demolition of the post office has come under scrutiny by members of the Maui County Council who say an appropriation for the project called for rehabilitation, not demolition. Council members deferred action Friday on a proposal to hire a special counsel to look into the matter. Meanwhile, the parking lot is set to open Monday for county employees only, said county spokesman Rod Antone. County officials expect the new parking lot will open more on-street parking in Wailuku, he said.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Mike White raised questions about the demolition project and proposed a resolution for the council to spend no more than $20,000 to advise and represent the council on the matter. The resolution would not launch a full investigation but it would get an opinion and advice on whether to go forward with legal action, White said.
His request came after he said he and the council found out that the demolition of the Old Wailuku Post Office was paid for by a fiscal year 2012 appropriation that did not call for the building's demolition, but rather its rehabilitation.
White said the Arakawa administration could have come to the council to amend the appropriation to provide for the demolition, but it didn't. Therefore, the council and members of the public were not given a choice on what to do with the building.
In White's Sunday Viewpoint in The Maui News, he said his committee asked the county Department of the Corporation Counsel for a legal opinion on whether ordinances were violated, and the county attorneys declined to give a legal opinion, citing a conflict of interest. So that is why, he said, he was seeking special counsel guidance. He also noted that county attorneys did give recommendations to the committee, which included council members seeking their own counsel.
An email from White's office Friday said council members were not aware of the funding source for the demolition of the post office until Feb. 1, which was after demolition had already started on the site.
The request of the funding source, White said, came after the administration tried to amend this year's budget to add an appropriation of $1.5 million for the "Kalana O Maui Campus Expansion" project, which would include a new building and parking on the Old Wailuku Post Office site.
After Friday's committee meeting, county spokesman Rod Antone said: "Our project has always been public. It's in the middle of downtown Wailuku for everyone to see. We are looking forward to clearing up any misunderstanding that some of the council members might have."
At the meeting, Council Member Don Couch said the issue was over a matter of words, and that entities such as the Public Works Department and even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency use the word rehabilitate, when the action calls for removal or demolition.
"I don't know where the disconnect is over the definition of that word," Couch said, adding that the $20,000 for special counsel is a "big waste of taxpayer money."
Couch said it appeared that the council was already putting the blame on the administration with the special counsel request.
"It's almost like they are guilty until they are proven innocent," he said.
Couch added that the administration has come before the council several times to discuss the demolition of the building and not one time did council members say "stop" to the project.
"It smacks like, sort of, some kind of agenda now," Couch said.
Council Member Don Guzman and Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa said the $20,000 cost to taxpayers would be too much money.
Guzman, who is an attorney, said it was too soon for the council to be hiring private attorneys to look into the matter and preferred to do some fact-finding first.
Council Vice Chairman Bob Carroll said he wanted to work with the administration and get "on the record" what really transpired.
Carroll noted that, despite what some public testifiers said, this wasn't going to be a fishing expedition.
Council Member Mike Victorino said launching an investigation before hiring special counsel would be the better approach.
But he agreed with White by saying that there was no mention of demolition for the appropriation for the rehabilitation of the post office.
Ron Kawahara, vice chairman of the Cost of Government Commission, testified that he was not taking sides, but he said the commission did recommend the demolition of the Old Wailuku Post Office.
Kawahara said a commission report detailed how much money the county was paying in rent and how many of its offices are scattered on the island.
The panel determined that the building, which was plagued with asbestos, lead and mold, should be demolished with a new structure to be built on its site for county offices, he said.
Rick Medina, a former longtime council member, told committee members that he supports hiring special counsel to look into the funding matter, but he also suggested looking further into the operations of the Arakawa administration.
"Are there any other illegal expenditures made by this administration?" Medina asked.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.