Complaint filed over loosened liquor rules
Woman charges Liquor Commission with failing to provide adequate notice to the public
A Sunshine Law complaint has been filed against the Maui County Liquor Control Commission for allegedly providing insufficient notice to the public about recent rule changes that include eliminating dry hours for liquor sales at retail stores countywide.
The complaint filed Sunday by Kihei resident Madge Schaefer requests that the state Office of Information Practices investigate whether the commission violated the Sunshine Law in its published agenda for its Feb. 8 meeting, at which the commission approved new rules allowing liquor licensees, such as supermarkets and liquor stores, to sell alcohol past the former 11 p.m. deadline.
“These new rules constitute major, sweeping changes and do not in any way fall under the description of ‘housekeeping,’ ” she said Wednesday. “It sweeps the item under the rug. It is a classic example of circumventing the very essence of the open meeting laws. These new rules go against community values and fly in the face of common sense.”
The rules were adopted during the commission’s Feb. 8 meeting and signed into law by Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa on Feb. 21. Minor amendments to the new rules were adopted at a March 8 hearing.
Under the Sunshine Law, agencies must describe the changes in rules or laws in sufficient detail on the meeting agenda. The amendments, if extensive, can be attached and referred to on the agenda.
The liquor commission agenda for the Feb. 8 meeting on the rule changes simply says: “Proposed amendments to the Rules of the Liquor Commission, County of Maui, relating to Title 08, Chapter 101, Rules Governing the Manufacture, and Sale of Intoxicating Liquor of the County of Maui.”
No details of the changes were provided and the proposed rules were not attached to the agenda.
The Office of Information Practices issued a letter Wednesday to the county Department of Liquor Control requesting a response from the department to the complaint. The department has until April 12 to respond.
OIP staff attorney Carlotta Amerino said the office has a backlog of requests going back “at least a year, if not longer.” She said the parties can request the matter be expedited, which is up to the director to approve.
“She does expedite cases when it’s warranted, so it’s possible,” Amerino said Wednesday.
If the commission is found noncompliant, Schaefer is calling for the new rules to be suspended until a properly noticed agenda — adequately describing the changes — can be placed before the commission for public hearing.
Amerino said that her office can issue an opinion, which holds some weight, but has no enforcement powers. Lawsuits would have to be filed against the agency to force it to comply with an OIP opinion, she said.
Liquor Director Glenn Mukai was out of the office Wednesday, and Deputy Director Mark Honda deferred comment to Mukai. Commission Chairman Robert Tanaka could not be reached by telephone Wednesday afternoon.
Maui County spokesman Rod Antone confirmed that county attorneys have received the complaint and are “reviewing it at this time.”
Many residents and liquor licensees, as well as Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu, were unaware of the rule changes until a news report was published last week about the liquor commission’s actions.
Had the police been aware of the law changes, he would have testified against some of them, the chief said Wednesday.
“It was a shocker to me,” Faaumu said.
The commission and Mukai have characterized the rule changes as “mostly housekeeping,” but Schaefer and other residents differed, noting the far-reaching effects the changes have on buyers, sellers and distributors of alcoholic beverages in the county.
Schaefer said some of the arguments supporting the rule changes “were just silly” and the process was a “blatant violation of the Sunshine Law.” She said the department should be punished regardless of how long the OIP decision takes.
“Housekeeping items to me are correcting typos and clarifying language,” she said. “They’re not doing these major changes. I just think the public ought to have an opportunity to comment on it.”
Wailuku resident Mahina Martin said Wednesday a clear opportunity to weigh-in on the rule changes is necessary because the community will be directly affected by risks from more readily available alcohol. She also opposed a rule change that removed the cap on hostess bars in the county, which had been 12 establishments.
“Hostess bars degrade women, normalize the experience and suggestive behavior of sex for money and take advantage of inebriated and distracted customers who are led into paying big amounts of cash or maxing out credit cards to buy overpriced drinks,” Martin said. “As we keep looking for and struggling to get a quality life that our island kids deserve, these rules don’t get us there.
“I’m hoping our voices our welcomed at the decision-making table and be heard.”
This isn’t the first time the liquor commission has had a brush with Sunshine Law violations. In 2015 when the panel selected commission member Dana Souza as director, the commission had to revote at a later meeting because it failed to list the naming of a director on the meeting agenda. Souza later declined the appointment, and Mukai was named director following a more formal selection process last year.
“This is really important to me, and it should be important to every elected official or appointed,” Schaefer said of the Sunshine Law. “I don’t think they have a chance in hell of proving themselves. They’re going to have to do a do-over and that’s the right thing to do.”
While residents have opposed many of the new rule changes, some stores have begun selling alcohol at all times under the new rules. Times Supermarket in Honokowai, which is open from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m., and in Kihei, open from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., began selling alcohol during all store hours after the news reports last week and appears to be one of the few major retailers that have extended hours so far.
Although the South Maui location has not seen any increase in sales, the West Maui store has experienced a steady flow of customers past 11 p.m., a manager said.
“There’s a decent amount, maybe a little more than before,” Joe Cabuco said, after the news broke about the lifting of the blackout period. “On the first day, people came in after the deadline to check out if they could actually buy.”
Cabuco said the store had to reconfigure its cash register system that prevented alcohol sales past the deadline; a couple of Central Maui stores said last week that they could not change their alcohol sale hours due to register issues. The store now sells alcohol until its closing at 2 a.m.
“There’s no 11 p.m. rush 30 minutes before,” he said. “Usually, we’d have one or two cashiers working, and they get swamped.”
Cabuco said many late-night customers are hotel workers ending their shifts and tourists. He believed there would be less problems at the store now because many customers would complain about the 11 p.m. deadline.
He added that workers still cannot sell to anyone visibly intoxicated or under the age of 21.
The Kihei manager, who declined to be identified, said he is sure sales will increase as more people become aware of the changes. He said he has advised all staff at the store to be “more diligent” in light of concerns over increased drunken driving and public drunkenness.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.