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Liquor director candidates may be revealed next week

Licensees ask for leader who will improve relations

Aluli

Maui County Liquor Control Commission Chairman Nane Aluli said “there is a better than even chance” that the commission will release the names of the top candidates for liquor director next week at its next special meeting.

“I’m pretty sure we will come out with a list,” Aluli said Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after commissioners held another special meeting and executive session to discuss candidates to replace Glenn Mukai, who retired in February. 

In a telephone interview, Aluli said he did not have a timeline for selection, and there is no deadline for the commission to select a new director. But Aluli said that after the commission releases its list of finalists, there will be time for the public to weigh in on the candidates.

After a 40-minute closed session Tuesday morning, Aluli said at the online meeting that the temporary investigative group in charge of the search for a new director provided its final report. The next special meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sept. 30.

Prior to the closed session, commissioners took oral testimony from about 10 testifiers. The majority were liquor licensees, who expressed a need for a department willing to work with licensees rather than intimidating them and digging for violations. They also hoped the new director could improve relations with licensees and update the “antiquated” liquor laws.

No new names of candidates applying for the director’s job came up during oral testimony Tuesday. 

During the last special meeting Sept. 3, several names of applicants surfaced. They included Wailuku attorney David Jorgensen; Oahu resident Ken Takemoto, a former chief liquor control investigator with the Honolulu Liquor Commission; Oahu resident Malama Minn, current co-vice chairwoman of the Honolulu Liquor Commission; and Layne Silva, a longtime senior investigator with the Maui County liquor department. 

Applicants are seeking to replace Mukai, who made $139,133 annually. Deputy Director Georgette Tyau is filling in as interim director.

Laren Gartner, a co-founder and CEO of Cheeseburger in Paradise, spoke about the “bullying tactics” liquor inspectors have engaged in at her restaurants. Inspectors have yelled at her managers and made checks at her Front Street restaurant in Lahaina every night for many years.

She said the visits were not to encourage the application of liquor laws but “were intended to intimidate us.” 

“Our managers were scared and our customers were made uncomfortable,” she said. 

In the more than 30 years her restaurant has been open, she said no one from the liquor department offered assistance to navigate the “cryptic” rules and regulations. 

“They come in the door looking to find us guilty of anything no matter how small or routine the infraction” she added. 

As operators of restaurants on Oahu, Gartner said liquor inspectors there “do not use bullying tactics like Maui inspectors do.” 

“I urge you to select a director who wants to improve relations between the operators and the liquor (department), a director who is capable of common sense discussions meant to improve our ability to run our operations lawfully, as well as at the same time have the wisdom and power to see what is reasonable oversight of the rules and regulations,” Gartner said.

“Please select a professional that can work with us to restructure an antiquated system of bullying through the liquor inspections,” Gartner later added.

Commissioner Jamie Becraft asked if Gartner had filed complaints about the incidents. She replied that she was afraid to go up against an inspector. Garner said she did speak to previous liquor directors when she felt the “bullying was too tough.”

After the conversations, inspectors still came in every night but the bullying did stop for a while. She never filed a complaint against a specific investigator.

Javier Barberi, a partner in Lahaina restaurants Down the Hatch and Mala Ocean Tavern, spoke about the hoops he still is trying to jump through with the liquor department to expand outdoor seating to a parking lot, to extend his dining room and to provide the open space that customers want amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barberi said he has been trying since June to have more seating outside and noted the “laundry list” of documents the liquor department needed, such as a lease amendment, scaled drawings, a list of registered voters nearby and other detailed documents, some that may require a lawyer.

The experience was like applying for a new liquor license, he said. Every time he turns in his paperwork, the liquor department finds something wrong.

Barberi reminded commissioners that in this pandemic “we need to help each other out.”

“You guys need to elect someone who is going to change these things, or otherwise we are still going to have problems,” Barberi said, while concurring with Gartner on many issues, including being wary of inspectors finding violations.

Commissioner Bruce U’u, a new commissioner, thanked the licensees for coming forward and sharing their issues with the commission. He called the hoops Barberi is having to go through “stupid” and noted that Gov. David Ige has given leeway to help businesses during the pandemic. 

U’u recalled a visit to a restaurant, where he was not able to take his drink over an “imaginary line” set by liquor department rules. He thought it was “crazy.” 

“We got to work on it,” U’u said. “We got to make changes to help you guys to succeed.”

Becraft said that the commission is trying to be supportive and that issues raised at the meeting could be discussed in the future. He also suggested having complaints against the department be reviewed by the commission.

“We appreciate it, we are going to try to do what we can,” Becraft said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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