WAILUKU - A Maui County Council committee on Monday recommended allotting $50,000 to hire outside legal counsel to defend against a lawsuit alleging the county violated the First Amendment rights of a member of the county Liquor Commission, who also is a part-time assistant to Council Member Don Guzman.
Council members spent several hours discussing the request with some members believing that the dispute could be resolved through mediation or other avenues without spending the money. But, in the end, the council Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee voted to approve the money - which is $100,000 less than sought by the administration - to move the process along and to leave the issue to the full council to decide.
Neldon Mamuad filed a lawsuit March 3 in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, claiming that he has been pressured by the county to stop work on the popular MAUIWatch Facebook page, which he edits and posts and from which he deletes content. The lawsuit describes MAUIWatch as a "crowd-sourcing site for traffic information and other news for the island of Maui."
The page was launched last summer under the "TAGUMAWatch" name. It was a Facebook page dedicated to commentary and observations of the law enforcement activities of Maui police officer Keith Taguma. The lawsuit describes Taguma as "prolific in writing traffic citations and for his rigorous and meticulous enforcement of Maui traffic laws."
Taguma complained about the postings of sightings of him on the site and filed a harassment complaint, according to the lawsuit. In August, the page was renamed MAUIWatch after Mamuad said that he "was pressured to do so, in addition to being pressured to shut down the page altogether" by county Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong, according to the complaint.
Mamuad was later informed that he had violated the county's "Violence in the Workplace Action Plan" as a liquor commissioner and that the violations involved harassment and cyberbullying through online social media, the lawsuit said.
Committee Chairman Riki Hokama told the committee that he wasn't entirely sold on hiring special counsel and its price tag, but said that he wanted the committee to approve the resolution to "buy us time" to continue to review the request. He added that because the case was already in the courts, approving the resolution at this time would be the responsible thing to do.
He explained the reduction to $50,000 for outside attorneys as a mechanism to bring corporation counsel back to the council for updates on the case and to explain the need for more money.
Council Members Mike Victorino, Don Couch, Elle Cochran, Stacy Crivello and Hokama voted in favor of the amended resolution. Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa and Vice Chairman Robert Carroll, also on the nine-member committee, were absent and excused due to medical issues.
Guzman recused himself, noting that Mamuad is his part-time executive assistant. The council member also pointed out that the complaint involves Mamuad in his capacity as a liquor commissioner and not as a council employee.
The only council member to vote against obtaining special counsel was Mike White, who said that the situation could have avoided the courts, though the county now may be on the hook for $150,000 for outside attorneys.
"This is a really manini issue," he said.
White noted that there have been other instances where the council denied requests by the administration for funds for outside counsel and used county attorneys instead.
Wong explained that there is a need for special counsel in this case because of the potential conflicts of interest. He and Deputy Corporation Counsel Gary Murai are named in the complaint and could be named as defendants. Other attorneys in the office also may become involved as witnesses.
Victorino said that perhaps the council could suggest mediation. "The courts is not where this needs to be," he said.
Guzman concurred, adding that "this could have been avoided." He noted that current policies do not address harassment via the Internet and that there is no appeals process - which are grounds for the lawsuit.
About the possibility of a settlement out of court, Wong said that he's not sure the plaintiff would come to the table and whether a meeting at the moment would ultimately result in a solution.
The county's top civil litigator deflected other questions in the name of protecting the county's legal case. In response to a query from White, Wong declined to give an outline of the incident and the steps the administration took in trying to remedy the matter in the open hearing. He said that comments made at Monday's council committee meeting could be used by the plaintiff's attorneys.
Council members did consider taking up the matter in executive session. The majority ultimately decided to keep the hearing open, saying that the public should know what is going on and that the lawsuit already is public.
Wong told council members that not every allegation made in a lawsuit is accurate. In response to a question from Couch, Wong said that the county never told Mamuad to take down the MAUIWatch Facebook page.
Several people testified by email, including MAUIWatch reporter and chief meteorologist Malika Dudley. She asked that the MAUIWatch site not be taken down and that any disciplinary action against Mamuad be erased.
Other testifiers noted that taxpayer dollars could be better spent elsewhere.
Wong agreed and believes that the money for the outside attorneys could be spent on better causes, but that he cannot control the actions of a plaintiff that requires the need for the expenditure.
After the meeting, County Communications Director Rod Antone said: "If the situation were reversed and Mr. Mamuad were the one filing the complaint against a county employee, we would have done the exact same thing, (which is) investigate, and review and if need be take action.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* This article includes a correction from the original published onTuesday, March 18, 2014. Legal counsel funds. Maui County Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong is godfather to Council Member Don Guzman's youngest son. A story that appeared on Page A1 on Tuesday and continued to Page A4 listed another person as the child's godfather. The Maui News apologizes for the error.