The Maui County Council voted Friday to move forward with a formal investigation into the potential misuse of county funds appropriated for rehabilitation of the Old Wailuku Post Office.
After nearly two hours of discussion, the resolution passed with a 5-3 vote, with Council Member Don Guzman excused. Council Members Riki Hokama, Mike White, Mike Victorino, Elle Cochran and Stacy Crivello voted in favor of the resolution, while Council Members Don Couch, Bob Carroll and Gladys Baisa voted against it.
Last month, the council's Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee advanced a measure to investigate possible misuse of about $1.5 million in public funds by Mayor Alan Arakawa's administration over the demolition of the Old Wailuku Post Office.
Some council members said that the administration went ahead with demolishing the building without amending budget language for the project that called for the structure's "rehabilitation." The administration should have called for a budget amendment, conducted an environmental assessment and allowed public comment, the council members maintain.
Baisa said that while she agrees that there should be an investigation, the issue should be referred back to the Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee to better define the investigation's scope, its methodology, costs and "what it will look like."
"I would've really liked to have one more shot at this (resolution) in the committee so that we have a better description of the process we're going to use and how we're going to do it, because everyone seems to have a different idea of how this is going to move forward, anything from a community-wide view to us sitting down to talk story," Baisa said.
The resolution leaves the conduct of the investigation fairly open for the Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. It will decide whether it will be an inquiry or a formal investigation, how long it will take and how much it will cost.
Committee Chairman Hokama insisted that all decisions made by the committee would go through due process and appear before the full council for approval.
"How did we get in this position in the first place? I think people want to know," Hokama said.
"This is something that has occurred possibly more than once, so we need to find the facts and (determine) whether or not we need to create policy through ordinance or other means so it is very clear what needs to be done to get appropriate financing for official, certified and council-approved legislation," Hokama said.
White and Victorino agreed with Hokama, saying that members of the public would need council approval if they wanted to amend their existing building permits for a project.
"Under the charter, if the budget calls for the expenditure of public dollars for the repair of road A, and the mayor desires to use half of the money for the repair of road B, he must obtain consent of the council," White said. "This is the law, and the law was simply not followed."
But a lengthy investigation into what some administration officials have called a mere "miscommunication" could end up costing a lot of time and money, said Couch, who instead advocated for an "informal" investigation.
"That's a lot of money . . . that could be used for a bunch of other stuff," Couch said. "There was a 200-page document given to us (by the administration) in committee. It seems to be obvious what happened. Why do we need a formal investigation?"
Couch made a motion to refer the measure back to the committee so that some of the questions would be clarified before the council passed the resolution. The motion failed to draw the necessary votes, with most council members advocating to start the investigation as soon as possible.
"This is not a joke. This is serious," Victorino said. "Let's get it done expeditiously, professionally, and let's make corrections so it doesn't happen again."
The mayor said in an email Friday that he was "very eager to go before this investigation to tell our side of the story."
"We designed the project worksheet to be flexible, which is why we used words like 'anticipate' and 'include,' " Arakawa said of the original plans. "We were clear that we did not know what direction to take, and we depended upon the council to provide that direction. Over and over again they told us to demolish the building."
Arakawa issued a public apology last week for the "mistake" his administration made when it did not formally amend the county budget. A bill proposing to rectify the error and update the current county budget was taken up by the council on June 19, but it failed to pass in a 5-4 vote.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.