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County paid for council members, staff to stay at Wailea hotel for HSAC

Chairwoman justifies charges, says they were working the event

Maui County Council Chairwoman Kelly King, whose residency district includes South Maui, stayed at the Wailea Beach Resort – Marriott Maui during the June 9-12 Hawaii State Association of Counties 2019 Conference and was reimbursed by the county $1,147.88 for her stay. This photo was taken in January. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Six Maui County Council members and six executive assistants stayed at the Wailea Beach Resort – Marriott Maui during a conference in June and were reimbursed in public funds to the tune of just over $11,000, according to documents obtained from the county Finance Department.

The hotel stays took place during the Hawaii State Association of Counties Conference that Maui County hosted in Wailea from June 9 to 12, with bills ranging from a one-night stay for $319.14 to a three-night stay for $1,156.18. A seventh council member also stayed at the hotel for three nights but was not reimbursed.

And while county officials said it’s not uncommon to cover accommodations for officers and employees who help to host conferences, the practice raises questions over the use of county funds.

“I can understand if those council members that are living on those islands (of Lanai and Molokai) are coming over to attend that conference, and those council members need a place to stay,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of the nonpartisan government watchdog Common Cause Hawaii. “That makes more sense. But if they’re on island, it raises a question as to why they need a hotel room if they could go back to their primary residences on the island of Maui.”

Hosting the conference also cost almost $25,000 more and generated nearly $36,000 less than the last time Maui County hosted back in 2015. And, while HSAC conferences are generally funded by registration fees and sponsorships, this year’s conference also used a $25,000 grant from the South Maui Economic and Cultural Development fund to pay for a film screening and entertainment at the conference.

Council Member Alice Lee drove back and forth to the three-day Hawaii State Association of Counties 2019 Conference from her home in Wailuku.

Council Chairwoman Kelly King, who lives in Kihei and was one of the officials who stayed at the hotel, defended the expenses.

“The only complaint I got about this year’s conference was that there was so much good content that it was hard to choose between breakout sessions,” King said. “Nobody complained about the entertainment. Nobody complained about the venue. Nobody complained about the things you’re asking about. I suspect this is just an attack on the council.”

The Hotel Stays

HSAC is a nonprofit corporation that includes members of the four county councils across the state. Every year, the councils take turns hosting the conference. This year, it fell to Maui County.

The conference’s theme was “Hot Topics in Sustainability” and featured panels on issues of transportation, sustainable agriculture and land use, water, energy, housing and climate change. The conference also included a Maui Film Festival screening of “Beyond Climate Change,” as well as entertainment that included a welcome reception with George Kahumoku Jr. and a dinner luau with Henry Kapono and Pat Simmons Jr.

Council Member Tamara Paltin drove back and forth to the three-day Hawaii State Association of Counties 2019 Conference from her home in Lahaina.

Prior to the conference, King authorized a stipend of up to $300 per council member to be used toward accommodations at the hotel during the conference.

“Anything in excess of the stipend, including additional nights stay, may be covered by your Councilmember Individual Account, if funds are available,” King said in a May 15 memo. “The cost of hotel accommodations for council members from Hana and Lanai will be reimbursed in full by the Central Account.”

King also said she would allow Councilmember Individual Accounts to cover hotel accommodations and conference registration for executive assistants, provided funds were available. The executive assistants had to be “registered for the conference and sign up to work a shift of at least two hours per day to have their hotel accommodations authorized.”

The Central Account and Councilmember Individual Accounts both draw from the general fund, and the latter is used for staff salaries and general office expenses, said David Raatz, supervising legislative attorney at the Office of Council Services.

When asked why she authorized members to stay at the hotel, King said, “there’s two things.”

Council Member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, whose residency district is Molokai, did spend three nights at the Wailea Beach Resort – Marriott Maui but did not seek reimbursement for the stay. The six other council members did stay at the resort and were reimbursed by the county for their room cost.

“One is that they were working, so we wanted them to be able to stay out there for their own safety so they wouldn’t have to be driving back and forth every day,” she explained. “The second is when you book a conference like this, you have to guarantee a certain amount of rooms. We figured out early we were not going to reach that guarantee, so we would have to pay for those rooms anyway. If we have to pay for them, let’s put the people who are working in the conference in those rooms.”

Several council members and staff members ended up staying. All told, their travel reimbursements totaled $11,237.97, according to Finance Department documents obtained through a Uniform Information Practices Act request.

The bills were initially charged to council members’ and their staffs’ credit cards but were later reimbursed by the county. The reimbursements for hotel stays, including parking and taxes, and residency districts for council members were as follows:

• Chairwoman Kelly King (South Maui): Three nights, $1,147.88, not including a $73.75 personal expense for room service.

• Council Member Riki Hokama (Lanai): Three nights, $1,118.68, including a $270 per diem meal allowance.

Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, addressed the Hawaii State Association of Counties 2019 Conference on June 10 at the Wailea Beach Resort – Marriott Maui. Six council members and six executive assistants stayed at the resort during the June 9-12 conference and were reimbursed in public funds of over $11,000. -- The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

• Council Member Shane Sinenci (East Maui) and executive assistant Don Atay: Three nights, $1,001.18.

• Council Member Mike Molina (Makawao-Haiku-Paia): Two nights, $765.26, not including a $37 personal expense for the Kapa Poolside Bar.

• Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura (Upcountry): One night, $576.45, split charge for sharing a room with Council Member Tasha Kama.

• Council Member Kama (Kahului): Three nights, $540.17.

• Mavis Oliveira-Medeiros, Hana district office staff for Sinenci: Three nights, $1,156.18, including $292.50 per diem meal allowance.

• Michelle Del Rosario, executive assistant to King: Three nights, $1,114.55.

• Kate Griffiths, executive assistant to King: Three nights, $1,104.14.

• Lois Whitney, executive assistant to Kama: Three nights, $1,016.78.

• Dawn Lono, executive assistant to Sinenci: Three nights, $1,001.18, not including a $10 personal expense for Nalu Adventure Pool Bar.

• Maria Ornellas, executive assistant to Molina: One night, $376.38.

• Stacy Takahashi, executive assistant to Molina: One night, $319.14.

The only offices that did not receive a reimbursement were those of council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez (Molokai), Council Member Alice Lee (Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu) and Council Member Tamara Paltin (West Maui).

Rawlins-Fernandez said she stayed at the hotel but her staff did not. She said she was not reimbursed because she didn’t know when the deadline for reimbursements was, and the conference fell during the busy time of finalizing the budget.

“I personally paid for the hotel room I stayed at for three of the three nights,” said Rawlins-Fernandez, who is the council Budget Committee chairwoman. “My understanding was that previous council members received reimbursements for their entire stay the last time the HSAC conference was on Maui, so I supported the decision for all council members to receive a reimbursement for one night.”

Lee said she didn’t stay at the hotel “because I live in Wailuku.”

Paltin said she drove back and forth every day from Lahaina.

Council members said they brought staff to help with the conference. Sinenci, for example, brought staff from his office and Hana to help conduct a cultural ceremony on Kamehameha Day. Others said they stayed because they were authorized by King’s May 15 memo, and because they said it was common practice.

“Conference hotel stays and expenditures are consistent with previous councils for past HSAC conferences,” Molina said.

At least one official offered to pay the money back.

“I will pay this back,” Sugimura said. “It’s not any intention of misappropriation of county funds. I just thought we were trying to fill hotel rooms, and we were helping to do that.”

Raatz said the conference had committed to 90 rooms on June 9, 125 rooms on June 10 and 125 rooms on June 11, including four staff rooms and one hospitality room that were paid by conference revenue, not county funds. The conference filled 75 rooms on June 9, 88 on June 10 and 76 on June 11, short of the 90 percent quota. Raatz said the “room attrition after earned comp credit” was $10,562.67.

“This means HSAC conference revenue was reduced by this amount; no county funds lost,” he explained.

King said she lives “at the north end of Kihei, so about 15 minutes away.” But she stayed at the hotel because it was easier.

“It was easier for me, for the people that needed me there,” King said. “Every day, all day long, I was answering questions and working out problems.”

When asked whether she thought it appropriate to use public funds to cover on-island hotel stays, King said, “it’s kind of an arbitrary question.”

“We pay for Molokai, Lanai and Hana, but if you’re coming from West Maui and you’re going to Wailea, that’s almost as far as coming from Hana or maybe even farther,” King said. “So why is West Maui treated different? And then we have to look at the people driving Upcountry and if we want them driving home late at night. Do I allow West Maui and not Upcountry? . . . Where do you draw the line? I just decided that anybody who was working the conference should be able to stay there.”

King also pointed fingers elsewhere, saying that “I could’ve sworn I talked to people from that planning conference that had stayed at the Sheraton.”

She was referring to a Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials conference that the Maui County Planning Department hosted at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa in September. Planning Director Michele McLean said that the county did not pay for staff members to stay at the Sheraton.

“All costs, including hotel stays for working staff, are covered by the HCPO budget, which is funded by conference registration and sponsorships,” McLean said. “Staff, like any other attendee, have the option of extending their hotel stay at the conference rate, but that would be at their personal expense.”

County funds covered hotel stays for Molokai, Lanai and Hana board and commission members, but not for other Maui-based members, McLean said.

The Finance Department confirmed that no travel order was issued for the planning conference and that the county did not reimburse any employees for hotel accommodations. All reimbursements were for registration and parking.

Hours after King’s interview on Thursday, her executive assistant, Del Rosario, called The Maui News to say that King had been planning to pay for her own room and may have been reimbursed mistakenly.

“She was surprised that she was reimbursed for her room because she was planning on paying for that herself,” Del Rosario said. “I processed those reimbursements, and I may have incorrectly processed that.”

Del Rosario said the county was supposed to get two compensated rooms as part of the booking package, but at some point that changed, and “the chair wasn’t aware until today.” King was supposed to get one of those rooms. However, those rooms did not get compensated because the conference didn’t meet the room quota, Del Rosario said.

She said there were other charges on the bill that shouldn’t have been on there because of the booking package, and that King may not have been aware of the charges because she did not check out of the room.

“Her husband checked out of the room,” Del Rosario said. “So I’m not sure if he even knew what he was paying for.”

When asked to confirm that the reimbursement with King’s name on it was indeed her hotel receipt, Del Rosario said, “I don’t know if it is or not.” She said King’s signature on the bottom of the reimbursement appeared to be a stamp of her signature. Del Rosario uses the stamp “to reimburse certain items that are low-dollar items just for processing purposes.”

“She did not sign this,” Del Rosario said. “I’m not sure she saw it. I’m not sure she was aware of it. I will own it if it was a mistake that I made.”

When asked if that meant King didn’t know she had been reimbursed until Thursday, Del Rosario said, “that’s my understanding.”

The county also paid HSAC for registration costs for all attending Maui County elected officials and staff members, which totaled $15,550 – $9,000 for 20 Office of Council Services employees, $4,050 for nine council members, and $2,500 for two executive assistants each from the offices of King, Kama, Molina and Sinenci.

County Travel Policy

Maui County has a travel policy, but it’s an internal document that covers the administration and executive branch, and the Office of Council Services is not required to follow the policy, Deputy Finance Director May-Anne Alibin said.

The policy states that “the County of Maui will not pay for employees to stay in hotels on the island that they live on.” The county also won’t pay for taxi service to and from the airport. It will pay for parking at the airport “for a reasonable period of time without advanced approval. Other than parking at the airport, any exceptions to this must be approved in advance by the mayor.”

When it comes to choosing conferences and training to attend, the policy also states that “publicly funded travel should be kept at a minimum, used only when the county will derive a clear and specific benefit through those traveling, and is cost-effective relative to the county benefit derived.”

The Maui County Code addresses travel expenses out of state, in state and to Hana and Haleakala Crater, but is not specific about on-island accommodations. It allows county officers or employees who are traveling on official business to be compensated by the county for airfare and ground transportation, the latter of which cannot exceed $30 per day per person unless authorized.

For official business travel within the state, it allows county officers and employees to receive a per diem allowance of $90 per 24-hour day.

It also allows county officers or employees to receive funds in addition to their per diem allowances when the cost of commercial lodging exceeds $50 for intrastate travel and $85 for out-of-state travel. And, whenever the allowances aren’t enough to cover the cost of “commercial lodging, ground transportation and other reasonable and necessary expenses incurred by an officer or employee on official travel, the mayor or, in the case of the county council and its staff,” the council chairperson may authorize additional payments to cover such excess costs or expenses, provided that receipts are submitted, the code says.

When asked about the council’s policy for travel, Raatz said that “accommodation and other travel expenses are routinely reimbursed for approved off-island and Hana events. Similar reimbursement is provided for special events, such as conferences for officers and employees who are working and helping to host conference events.”

While traveling can be a hardship for council members who represent Molokai, Lanai and Hana, Raatz was asked why other Maui-residing members would be reimbursed to stay at the hotel?

“All nine council members had working roles at the HSAC conference,” Raatz replied. “Many staff members did, too. So when we ended up having available rooms under our contract, we opened them up to council members and staff. Some paid-for rooms would have gone empty otherwise.”

When asked if council members stayed at the Makena Beach and Golf Resort when the county hosted back in 2015, the Office of Council Services found records of four council members who received reimbursement: Council Chairman Mike White for $383.34, Council Members Bob Carroll for $685.84, Stacy Crivello for $685.84 and Hokama for $685.84 — for a total of $2,440.86.

“We do recollect that some staff and perhaps additional council members also stayed at the hotel, but they might have been in comp’d rooms, so there’s no reimbursement request in our records,” Raatz said.

Ma, head of Common Cause Hawaii, said that “just because something has been done in the past, doesn’t mean it should be done in the future.”

“We can always improve our ethics and our transparency,” she said.

Ma said that even if no rules were broken, “it still raises the appearance of impropriety, of taking advantage of something.” The nonpartisan nonprofit she leads is dedicated to holding government accountable, and Ma wasn’t sold on the argument that county officials should be paid to stay at the hotel because they were working the conference.

“People are putting on this conference to benefit the counties as a whole, including the County of Maui,” Ma said. “That’s the whole purpose of this conference — to come up with ideas that the counties could work together to benefit the counties. This is the responsibility, the duty, the public service, that council members signed up for, so I don’t really understand what that means. What, they get this perk?”

Conference Costs

When the county hosted the conference at the Makena Beach and Golf Resort from June 24-26, 2015, they pulled in $127,166.80 of income and spent $85,580.74, for a net income of $41,586.06.

This year, the county collected $115,768.15 of income and spent $110,167.55 for a net income of $5,600.60, according to a preliminary profit-and-loss report. Raatz said the report was not finalized yet because there was “one pending item still outstanding.” The net income was after the county paid back HSAC $5,000 in seed money.

According to the report, food and beverage at the 2019 conference made up the highest expenses at $89,991.07, followed by audio-visual costs at $7,941.71, miscellaneous costs at $4,732.25, fees at $3,728.26 and the program at $2,433.66. Supplies came out to $711.54, while entertainment totaled $400 and lei/flowers tallied $229.06.

According to Finance Department documents, some of the specific costs included:

• $1,724.94 for Maui Specialty Chocolate gifts for speakers and panelists, including one $41.95 gift pack and 120, 15-piece boxes.

• $393.33 for products from Maui businesses, including a $250 gift certificate for Na Hoku jewelry store and $143.33 for place mats, napkins and drink mats from Native Intelligence.

• $37.74 for framing a portrait of King Kamehameha to be used during a ceremony in his honor.

As for conference income, the bulk of it came from $57,000 in sponsorships and $55,950 in registration fees. Income from guests who attended the dinner luau or welcome reception totaled $2,817.28. Interest income was 87 cents.

Like the 2019 conference, the bulk of the 2015 conference expenses also went to food and beverages at $58,070.92. The second highest cost was for entertainment at $9,218.62, miscellaneous costs at $8,013.86, golf at $3,533.20, fees at $2,611.77, tour costs at $1,614.47 and supplies at $1,483.82. Lei/flowers cost $464.08, while other services amounted to $300 and travel cost $270.

Most of the 2015 conference income came from sponsorships at $81,250 and registration at $36,470. Golfing also generated $5,200 in income, while dining-guest income totaled $2,455 and tour income came out to $1,790. Interest income was $1.80.

Tours, according to the 2015 itinerary, included a $50 mom-and-pop food tour and a $40 Maui ag tour. Golfing at the Wailea Blue Golf Course cost $100.

The 2019 conference also offered golfing at the same course for an HSAC rate of $53. Other activities offered at the 2019 conference included the Maui Ocean Center with an HSAC rate of $17.76 for adults and the Submerged Maui Escape Room at an HSAC rate of $37.50.

Raatz said there were 223 registered attendees for the 2015 conference and 214 at the 2019 conference.

“They had a lot more corporate sponsors,” King said of the 2015 conference. “I think the focus was more on the corporate sponsorship and things like the golf tournament. For us this year, our focus was really on content. We spent more money and time, rather than gathering corporate sponsorships, putting together breakout sessions that could inform the counties.”

King said additional costs also may have been due to inflation, because the last conference was four years ago. She added that food was expensive and that they had to pay extra because some people who didn’t have tickets managed to get into the food line and sit down for meals.

On paper, entertainment costs between the two conferences also appeared vastly different, but King said during a council chair’s meeting in July that the entertainment was not included in the profit-and-loss report because it was paid for through the South Maui Economic and Cultural Development Fund. King said that the South Maui fund received $25,000 in grants and that the county “actually got an incredible deal from Henry Kapono, who only charged us $5,000 and brought four people with him.”

Hokama raised questions about the funds during the meeting, saying that the conference “normally does not have any governmental grants.”

In response, King said that the grants went to the Maui Economic Development Board to pay for the screening of the “Beyond Climate” film and to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center to pay for the entertainment. The grants did not go to HSAC, she said.

“If we hadn’t gotten those grants, then we would not have had that entertainment,” King said. “I don’t think they’d ever had that level of entertainment before at an HSAC Conference.”

“We’ve had,” Hokama interjected.

Raatz later confirmed that $15,000 of the grant went to MEDB, while the other $10,000 went to the MACC. The $400 for entertainment that is listed on the profit-and-loss report was for “Fawn Helekahi-Burns for the Kamehameha Day Celebration ceremonial protocol and lunch musical performance.”

King said Thursday that the entertainment counted as economic development because it was “helping to bring in people” to the conference. She said the fiscal year was coming to an end and that the grant money hadn’t been designated for anything.

“I thought, ‘Well, we can help bring this other content in that’s also going to attract more people to the conference,’ “ King said. “Everything we do out of economic development — the film festival gets support from economic development grants — everything is meant to help in keeping the businesses alive and bringing more commerce to South Maui.”

As for the film, which included a question-and-answer session with the filmmaker, King said she “put that under entertainment, but it was really an educational piece.”

“This conference really led the charge for the state on focusing on climate change and some of our environmental issues with sea level rise,” King said. “We brought in some really high-level people for that. We put a lot into the program, and it took a lot of council members because we were using them as moderators for the panels, as well as staff helping with logistics.”

When Other Counties Host

The Maui News also reached out to the three other counties to see how much it cost to host their respective HSAC conferences.

In 2017, Kauai County hosted the conference at the Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu and brought in a net income of $96,371.72 — more than twice what Maui County collected in 2015. Total expenses came out to $39,639.11, while total income was $136,010.83. The conference featured 23 panel speakers and drew 170 attendees.

Kauai County boosted conference income primarily through $99,000 in sponsorships, in addition to $30,325 in registration, $3,660 for golf, $2,590 in miscellaneous income and $450 in dining-guest income. Interest income was $10.83.

The county’s expenses were primarily for food and beverage at a cost of $24,647.43, followed by $6,572.03 in miscellaneous expenses, $4,311.64 for other services, $1,923.17 for golf, $1,384.84 in supplies and $800 in entertainment.

When asked about Kauai County’s travel reimbursement policy, legislative assistant Aida Kawamura explained that the Kauai County Council follows the county’s travel policy, which states that “travel on the island of Kauai, including seminars, training events, conferences or other community group event where prepayments or reimbursements for such expenses as registration fees, meals or course fees are anticipated must complete a travel voucher form.

“Unless otherwise approved by the mayor and finance director or designees, no county employees or officials will be allowed to stay at a hotel or other transient accommodation for those events, conferences or seminars that are held on Kauai,” the policy says.

“For the legislative branch, the council chair acts as the approving authority in place of the mayor and director of finance,” Kawamura explained. “I am not aware of any travel-related and hotel stay reimbursements for Kauai council members and staff related to an HSAC Conference hosted on Kauai.”

Hawaii County hosted the conference in 2016 but was unable to provide a profit-and-loss report by Friday. However, with regard to county travel policy, Hawaii County Clerk Jon Henricks said that “county policy is that most expenses incurred as a result of performing services as a county employee or official are paid by the county.”

“Lodging may be such an expense that is paid by the county, including lodging on Hawaii island,” Henricks said.

The City and County of Honolulu hosted the conference in 2018 but did not provide a profit-and-loss report by Friday.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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A Tale of Three Conferences

The Maui News reached out to the other three counties to compare the costs of hosting the Hawaii State Association of Counties Conference. Only Kauai County provided a profit-and-loss report to compare to the reports provided for Maui County’s 2015 and 2019 hosted conferences. Maui County’s 2019 report is preliminary pending one outstanding item, the Office of Council Services said. The income is paid back to HSAC.

Total Expenses Total Income Net Income Attendance

Maui County, 2015 $85,580.74 $127,166.80 $41,586.06 223

Kauai County, 2017 $39,639.11 $136,010.83 $96,371.72 170

Maui County, 2019 $110,167.55 $115,768.15 $5,600.60 214