WAILUKU - Maui County Council's Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee advanced a resolution Monday to formally investigate possible misuse of public funds by Mayor Alan Arakawa's administration over the demolition of the Old Wailuku Post Office.
The resolution, introduced by committee Chairman Riki Hokama, called for the committee to perform the investigation. Another resolution introduced earlier by budget committee Chairman Mike White called for the hiring of special counsel to look into the matter.
Even as County Managing Director Keith Regan apologized to the committee for any "misunderstanding" over the demolition of the building and provided a stack of more than 200 documents on the project, the committee voted 6 to 3 in favor of further examination of the matter.
The resolution now will be forwarded to the full council for review July 5.
In explaining the reason for the probe, some council members said that the administration had used funds marked for "rehabilitation" of the old building to demolish it instead. Some council members also stressed that it is their duty to provide the checks and balances for county government and that the public lost an opportunity to comment on the demolition because it never made its way through proper channels.
Some council members admitted that they were aware of the demolition earlier this year. They said they observed the bringing down of the building across Wells Street from the county building but did not question the work.
The committee advanced the resolution even as County Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa expressed her willingness to wait until Wednesday's special County Council meeting to consider amending the current county budget after-the-fact to explicitly call for the demolition of the Old Wailuku Post Office at the corner of High and Wells streets.
The bill proposed by the administration seeks to address the concerns of several council members over the use of about $1.5 million in funds earmarked for the "rehabilitation" of the Old Wailuku Post Office. About half of the money was used for the demolition and the other half for the planning of a new County of Maui campus, which included a new building at the post office site.
The meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. in the Council Chambers.
In response to a question from Council Member Don Couch, First Deputy Corporation Counsel Ed Kushi Jr. said that he wasn't sure if the bill up for consideration Wednesday would fix "your long-term problem" regarding the alleged misuse of funds.
The resolution that advanced Monday came from Hokama. He offered the resolution after White initially submitted his own resolution to seek special counsel to advise and represent the council in the investigation. White's office previously said that council members were not aware of the funding source for the demolition of the post office until Feb. 1, which was after demolition had started.
White proposed that the cost of hiring attorneys would not exceed $20,000.
At a previous committee meeting and at Monday's meeting, some members balked at the cost of contracting outside counsel.
Hokama's measure would have the committee conduct its own investigation, which would include calling county administrators and staff to testify.
Baisa, who voted against the measure, said Monday evening that it was her understanding that the committee would have the power to issue subpoenas and put people under oath.
The resolution also calls for an audit of the project.
Those who voted in favor of having the full council vote on whether or not to let the council committee conduct a formal investigation were Hokama, White, Elle Cochran, Stacy Crivello, Don Guzman and Mike Victorino.
Besides Baisa, Council Vice Chairman Robert Carroll and Couch also voted against the resolution.
After the meeting, Regan said in a written statement that "we look forward to clarifying our position to the council in regards to this matter."
"We were in fact prepared to answer any questions today (Monday) and even submitted more than 200 pages of supporting public documents, which illustrate the timeline of communication with council members in regards to the old Wailuku Post Office project," he said. "This timeline shows when we met with the council about the project, what was discussed and any subsequent communication with the council either as a whole or individually."
Regan added that the administration had hoped that the council committee would have gone through the documents before making its decision. Still, he said he believes that the sooner the inquiry is completed, the sooner the county may move its offices into county-owned buildings, including one proposed for the Old Wailuku Post Office site.
Regan said that the county currently pays more than $150,000 a month in rent.
"We had hoped that after demolition of the post office ended that we would be able to proceed with the design, planning and construction of a new building," he said. "As of right now, this delay puts us behind schedule, and we fully expect to have to re-negotiate our rental agreements in two years."
Currently, a temporary parking lot has been built on the demolition site.
White, who voted in favor of the resolution, said that this effort wasn't a case of the council going after the mayor but "us doing our job."
"We are responsible for doing the checks and balances," he said. "We are responsible for the fact-finding."
Even though the mayor's administration may have spoken to council members one-on-one about the demolition plans, White contends that the full council needed to be addressed on the demolition.
"We do not need special counsel," countered Carroll, who opposed the resolution. "We do not need an investigative committee."
He felt that the administration coming forward Monday with a stack of information about the project's history and process and recognizing and apologizing for any "misunderstanding" were sufficient. Carroll added that he felt the issue was a "procedural problem" that did not require an investigation and was one that the council and administration could work out together to prevent in the future.
If the demolition funding had come before the council, Carroll believes the council would have approved it anyway.
But Hokama countered that even if there is public support for the demolition of the post office, "I don't think the ends justifies the means." He stressed that there are different branches of government for a reason.
Even though some council members said that the administration and council should work together like a family, Hokama maintained that in families there are disagreements.
"Someone made a decision that they didn't need to follow the process or the (County) Charter," he said.
Earlier in the meeting, Regan, who appeared before the committee in place of Arakawa who is preparing for a conference of mayors' trip on the Mainland, offered an apology to the council members.
"On behalf of the mayor and our administration, I would like to start by offering our sincere apology for any misunderstanding that may have occurred," he said. "I assure you that any misunderstanding was inadvertent and not in any way malicious."
He added that the mayor's staff had met with council members including budget and finance committee chairmen over the years to discuss plans for demolishing the building to make room for expanding the county campus. There were no concerned voices then, he said.
Regan noted that the demolition was public knowledge, having been written about in the media and posted on social media.
"Never was there any suggestion that our work at the site was not in alignment of the council's understanding of what we intended to accomplish," Regan said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.