Debate gets heated over managing director amendment
Maui County Council Member Elle Cochran pressed for answers Wednesday about the extent to which county directors, including Managing Director Keith Regan, contributed money to Mayor Alan Arakawa’s campaign.
Her questions came as members of the council’s Policy, Economic Development and Agriculture Committee were discussing — with Regan and Arakawa in attendance — a proposed charter amendment to establish an Office of the Managing Director to hire a professional manager independent of politics to handle county daily operations and supervise department heads.
“If I’m not mistaken, I believe a majority of current directors, including the managing director, have helped Mr. Arakawa’s campaign,” Cochran said. “So, when you hear people saying, ‘Taking the politics out of the structure,’ that’s what they’re talking about . . . I can ask managing director, if you don’t mind, did you put money on Mr. Arakawa’s campaign?”
Committee Chairwoman Yuki Lei Sugimura interrupted the line of questioning, but Cochran persisted, saying, “I think it’s a valid question.”
Cochran said she believed “just about every single director (in) this Arakawa administration” has “funded the maximum amount on the campaign.”
So, “when you go out and hire outside people, not connected to any campaign, no politics, you’re hiring them for their credentials, their expertise, their skills, you know, job qualities to do the job that is stated in our charter to do . . . because, yeah, I got issues with a lot of the directorship right now.”
Shortly afterward, Sugimura told Cochran: “I don’t want us to get into a confrontation kind of situation. Please hold down your emotions when you talk to people who come to our chambers. They are our guests.”
She recounted the work her committee has done to do the will of voters to establish qualifications for directors. “We are going to do the will of the voters,” she said.
Cochran said that would be done if voters could cast ballots on hiring a professional managing director. “Get the voice of the people; put this on the ballot,” she said.
Then, as Arakawa, Council Member Kelly King and Cochran all tried to speak at once, Sugimura called a recess.
After the recess, Sugimura tried to direct the discussion back to a staff member, but King insisted that Cochran have her question answered.
Regan thanked Cochran for her question and said: “I have never contributed monies to the mayor or any other candidate with the expectation that there would be some benefit associated with that. I’m offended that that is even being alluded to in this body. That is shameful that we’re even going down this path. And I will tell you never once has this man (Arakawa) sitting next to me say, ‘Contribute to my campaign and I’ll give you a job.’ “
Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission online records show that Regan, while employed as managing director, did contribute thousands of dollars to Arakawa’s campaign. The contributions range in time from a $1,000 donation on Nov. 14, 2006, to a $10 donation on Oct. 1, 2012. Other donations of $1,000 or more included: $1,000 on May 6, 2011; $1,250 on Oct. 5, 2011; and $1,500 on June 13, 2012.
In 2016, Regan was a candidate himself for the council’s Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu residency seat, finishing in third place with 22.3 percent of the vote in the primary.
In 2017, Regan became a credentialed manager with a designation from the International Local Government Management Organization. He said he has not been involved in politics since then, with no campaign contributions, no sign waving and no attending fundraisers.
Because of a lack of quorum after noon, the managing director agenda item was deferred. After the meeting, Sugimura said that the next committee meeting is scheduled for June 19.
The resolution to reorganize the executive branch and establish an Office of the Managing Director would include having the managing director hired by the council though a recruitment-and-selection process involving the mayor, council chairperson and a three-member citizen group. The managing director would be responsible for the county’s daily operations, the appointment and removal of most department heads and the implementation of county policy.
The mayor would then be the county’s chief executive officer and supervise the managing director’s work, represent the county in intergovernmental affairs and sign or veto bills. The mayor also would nominate board and commission members.
A similar charter amendment to have a county manager failed to gain approval from a council committee in 2016.
At the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, King, the introducer of the resolution, said the proposed charter amendment was an “attempt to remove politics from the management of the administration and to strengthen the managing director position.”
King compared the managing director under the resolution as a chief operating officer, with the mayor the chief executive officer.
She called on the committee to “put this on the ballot” and not make a “judgment ourselves.”
Arakawa said allegations of outside influences “interfering with our ability to make good judgments,” is “pure baloney.”
Instead, he said the council is more open to political interference because the council sets the tone for the county and makes decisions on community plans that guide development. The council also has authority over the county’s annual budget and its capital improvement program.
He said the allegations of “everything changes” because a director or deputy director changes are false because there are civil service employees who carry on daily operations of the county from year to year.
If someone were hired as managing director, Arakawa said that person may not have the community contacts or knowledge of Maui County that is needed for such a position. It should be a requirement for the managing director to have experience working in the local community, he said.
He added that the managing director position could turn over easily, especially if the person does not have roots on Maui and it would be easier for the person to be accountable for their actions if they have a stake in the community.
The committee meeting began Tuesday and was reconvened Wednesday. During Tuesday’s meeting, around a dozen people testified on the managing director resolution, with more than half favoring the proposed charter amendment.
Paul Deslauriers said the change could get to the root of cronyism and away from top directors appointed with no experience.
“When a professional managing director has the experience, that is needed, it really helps the whole county become effective and efficient,” said Deslauriers, executive director of the Maui Pono network, who said he was speaking with his organizational development consultant hat.
Retired University of Hawaii Maui College professor Dick Mayer, is also advocated for the resolution, a concept he endorsed years earlier. He said department heads would all need to be qualified professionals, and they would be free to express professional opinions without “political pressure.”
Now, the managing director operates as a high executive assistant, but the resolution would give the managing director more “line of authority,” Mayer said.
But others, including Lawrence Carnicelli, government affairs director for the Realtors Association of Maui, urged caution, pointing out there could be good or bad county managers.
He also said a charter amendment approved in 2016 allows the council more confirmation authority over the mayor’s appointments for directors and provides for the council to set minimum qualifications for department heads.
That could help fix some issues, he said.
Paul Kailiponi, chairman of the Cost of Government Commission, which had a year to explore the county manager idea, advocated caution as well.
He asked council members to allow the charter amendment in 2016 — a compromise to the county manager proposal — more time to work.
“Let’s find out. Let us let due process go through and see what works,” he said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.