Even "politically charged" issues such as the controversy over the demolition of the Old Wailuku Post Office could fall within the purview of Maui County's new auditor.
"Just because an issue is politically charged, that doesn't mean I'm not going to audit it. I'm not going to avoid audits because it's political," said Lance Taguchi, who assumed the new position, created by the approval of a ballot measure in November, on July 1.
Taguchi said Thursday that he wasn't saying that he will or will not audit the Old Wailuku Post Office issue but said that he would need to have specific goals or outcomes for such an audit. Mayor Alan Arakawa and the County Council are at odds over the mayor's handling of the demolition of the Wailuku building, with the council poised to initiate a formal investigation.
'Just because an issue is politically charged, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to audit it.”
— Lance Taguchi
"I didn't take this position to be safe. I took the position to make a difference," he said.
Taguchi made the comments on the Old Wailuku Post Office controversy following his first meeting with the Cost of Government Commission on Thursday morning in the Mayor's Conference Room. The commission's job is to help the county promote economy, efficiency and improved service. It also submits an annual report of its findings and recommendations to the mayor and council.
The issue of the Old Wailuku Post Office came up in the context of a discussion about a Viewpoint by Council Member Don Couch in The Maui News that called for Taguchi to conduct an audit.
Vice Chairman Ronald Kawahara said that conducting an audit into the politically charged Old Wailuku Post Office demolition falls outside the scope of the auditor's function. He explained after the meeting that diving into that controversy would leave the auditor in a "no-win situation," because there is no expected outcome. Solutions already have been offered.
He added that these are the types of recommendations the commission could offer to Taguchi, who would not be bound by the recommendations.
Commission Chairman Frank De Rego reinforced the point that the commission is not taking a position on the Old Wailuku Post Office dispute. He did say that the panel was standing by its report that recommended the demolition of the building.
County Council members are preparing to investigate the administration's use of funds earmarked for the "rehabilitation" of the Old Wailuku Post Office for its demolition and for planning a county campus expansion. Arakawa has apologized for what he called a "mistake" and said the administration should have gone before the council to get a budget amendment for the demolition. The administration said that council members were aware of the demolition, which was discussed at council meetings and in one-on-one meetings with administration officials.
In the November election, voters approved amending the Maui County Charter to establish the auditor's office. Taguchi, who was working as the county's deputy clerk, was selected for the job. He was approved by the County Council in late June. A licensed certified public accountant, Taguchi has experience in both the private and public sectors.
About a month into his six-year term, Taguchi said that he is preparing hopefully to move into his new offices at the Wells Professional Center near the Kalana O Maui building by the first week of August.
"I'm trying to get started quickly, and sometimes that's not easy in a government environment because of the protocols," Taguchi said of building the office from the ground up.
He hopes to have some staff on board by September. He is expecting to hire two analysts and one administrative staffer. He also is seeking help from other auditors across the state in developing job descriptions and assisting with the hiring process.
In response to questions by the commission, Taguchi said he feels that his $900,000 budget is sufficient for now to pay for salaries of his staff and a $300,000 mandated independent financial audit of the county for the current fiscal year.
Taguchi hopes to begin audits after he and his staff go through some training. He has some ideas for audits but would like to hear from the public, the County Council and the administration. He told the commission that he'll have an open-door policy and provide openness about the work of his office.
In his conversation with the commission, whose meetings Taguchi will regularly attend, the new auditor stressed his need for independence, even from the commission.
Responding to a question from Kawahara, Taguchi said that he expects that the council will approve funds for staffing for investigations that may be critical of the council. After the meeting, he said that the County Charter explicitly calls for the independence of the auditor, which he thinks he will receive from the county administration and the council.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.