Licensees critical of liquor department, panel
Testifiers cite fear of retribution, changing rule interpretations; audit is underway
KIHEI — Maui County’s liquor department and commission came under fire Tuesday night with licensees citing a lack of transparency, fear of retribution, heavy-handedness and unreasonable rule interpretations at a meeting called as part of a Maui County Council audit.
“The fear and intimidation and harassment of the liquor department is very obvious and very widespread,” restaurant owner Mike O’Dwyer said to the crowd. “It is unbelievable, and the only reason we’re having this meeting tonight is, thankfully, due to the general public.”
County Council Chairman Mike White called for the open forum at the Kihei Community Center as part of a performance audit of the department. An outside consulting firm hosted the gathering and asked attendees to provide input on the efficiency and effectiveness of the licensing and permitting process.
Representatives from about 40 licensees and nonprofit groups and concerned residents attended the meeting. All who spoke were critical of the department and its governing body, the county Liquor Control Commission.
Attendees said that dozens of licensees would have joined the meeting and spoken out against the commission and the department if not for fear of retaliation.
“I texted some of my friends who are licensee owners to come to the meeting, and two of them replied they didn’t want to come for fear they would be closed down,” O’Dwyer said. “I’m not scared because I’m tired of going before these people and dealing with these situations.”
The performance audit follows a tumultuous 2017 that saw two commissioners resign and the department and commission facing public criticism. Hundreds of residents and nonprofit officials testified against major rule changes and more stringent requirements to obtain licenses.
Nearly all of the changes, such as allowing 24-hour retail sales of alcohol and criminal background checks of nonprofits officers for single-event fundraising licenses, have been rescinded due to public pressure. The commission also has come under fire for issuing an “above average” review for Liquor Control Director Glenn Mukai despite the public outcry over his handling of the rule changes and being the subject of a complaint over violence in the workplace.
No one from the department appeared at the meeting; only commissioner Alberta de Jetley of Lanai showed up.
Mukai did not respond for comment Wednesday.
O’Dwyer, who owns two licenses for Fabiani’s and another for Mulligans on the Blue, said he and other licensees have been treated unfairly since Mukai became director in 2016. He said he has been cited for more than 20 violations and paid more than $20,000 in fines for violations, such as failure to remove all empty glasses and containers before serving another drink and drinking in restrooms.
O’Dwyer added that he applied for a permit in the summer of 2017 to host a 1,000-person event but was denied because the application was missing a comma and had the wrong date. When he asked if he could make the change and initial it, he was told he had to resubmit the entire application, which would take 10 business days to process.
“The transparency and customer service has to change,” he said. “Rules are rules, it’s the interpretation that matters so let’s have the same for everyone. If we break the rules, shame on us. But we’ll stick by the rules if we know what they are.”
While many restaurant owners were skittish about appearing at Tuesday’s meeting, so too were hotel and resort officials. Bud Pikrone, general manager of the Wailea Community Association, said the hotel and resort officials were afraid of punishment for speaking out against the liquor department and commission.
Pikrone, who has helped organize the Maui Film Festival and nonprofit events for nearly 20 years, said application requirements change every year for no apparent reason. Typically, he has to reapply four or five times in order to obtain a permit.
Some of the changes the department required were minor changes to the title of the site map, color coding areas and specifically identifying the bathrooms with an “M” and “W.”
“There’s all these little details that seem to be made up as they go,” he said. “They need to have some consistency.”
Debbie Cabebe, president of the Maui Nonprofit Directors Association, said it can take up to 60 hours to process one application, and it has to be done by appointment at the department’s office in the David K. Trask Jr. Building in Wailuku.
“As a nonprofit you might have two employees and the rest is run by volunteers,” said Cabebe, whose association represents 73 directors. “It’s an unnecessary waste of time.”
Wailuku attorney Keri Mehling, who represents liquor licensees, said she knew of 20 to 30 licensees who declined to attend the meeting. She blamed the department’s administration, which has changed how it interprets the rules and has declined her offer to help redesign them. Several people who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting said their offers to volunteer their time to aid the process have been rebuffed by the department.
“I don’t think the issue is the rules,” Mehling said. “I think the issue is that we’ve dramatically changed how we’re interpreting the rules. It’s making it more difficult and harder than it needs to be.
“The rules, even ones that have been in place for years and years, are interpreted completely different.”
Many speakers complained about not being heard by commissioners or the department and asked why no officials came to the meeting. De Jetley, who joined the commission in April, said she could not speak for other members and the department, but noted: “I’m here and I’m listening.”
De Jetley, who served on the commission a decade ago, said after the meeting that she is “very pro-business” and believes that she is “serving the people who pay for our department.” She said she wants to streamline the process and make the rules transparent and fair for all licensees.
“This meeting tonight was wonderful,” she said. “I’m really glad people showed up. I’m a little concerned that they’re afraid they’re going to be retaliated against, which would be totally uncalled for. I hope more people will be willing to step up and speak from their heart on what we can do to make this better.”
San Francisco-based consultant Harvey Rose Associates LLC is performing the audit, which will cover the inspection process; enforcement; clarity of laws, rules and procedures; fee fairness; commission/adjudication board roles; and other issues. The firm plans to review records, data and interview workers.
Fieldwork is expected to be completed at the end of August with the report of findings and recommendations for improvement to be delivered to the County Council sometime in the fall, Fred Brousseau, the principal of Harvey Rose, said. He said the audit will cover at least the past three years and possibly five years if the materials are available.
“The important thing is that it’s an independent audit, so we’re not beholden to the department head, the commission, the adjudication board or the County Council for that matter,” Brousseau said. “They’ve given us the freedom to do an independent assessment.”
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.