WAILUKU - The Maui County Council voted Friday to grant the administration $50,000 to hire outside legal counsel to defend the county in a lawsuit filed by MAUIWatch Facebook page founder Neldon Mamuad, who members said may have engaged in "cyberbullying" against a police officer and fellow county employee.
Mamuad, a volunteer member of the county Liquor Commission and part-time assistant to Council Member Don Guzman, filed a lawsuit against the county last month. The suit alleges that Mamuad's First Amendment rights were violated when the county pressured him to stop work on the popular MAUIWatch Facebook page.
County officials have since said that they never ordered Mamuad to stop or shut down the MAUIWatch page, though they did ask him to change the name from the original TAGUMAWatch page after Maui police officer Keith Taguma filed a harassment complaint against Mamuad last summer. The page was renamed MAUIWatch in August.
"This member considers cyberbullying to be a very serious issue," Council Member Riki Hokama said Friday. "Mental abuse is just as serious as physical violence."
Council members said that so far the discussion has centered around whether or not Mamuad's First Amendment rights have been violated, though the root of the dispute stems from Mamuad's alleged cyberbullying of a fellow county employee.
"While I can appreciate the concerns regarding First Amendment rights, there's still laws on the books regarding slander, regarding libel," said Hokama, who chairs the council committee on policy and intergovernmental affairs.
Hokama confirmed after the meeting that he was referring to the way Mamuad used TAGUMAWatch to "bully" Taguma.
Council Member Don Couch said that the "real issue" was a dispute between a volunteer officer, Mamuad, and a county employee, Taguma.
"It was portrayed in one of the newspapers circulated here that this was a First Amendment issue, and it certainly is not - especially since Mr. (Patrick) Wong said on the floor in public session that they do not want to shut down the MAUIWatch site," Couch said.
County Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong explained during a committee meeting last month that there is a need for special counsel because of 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.
Council Member Mike White was the only member to vote no on hiring outside counsel, saying that this was an internal dispute that was "avoidable and unfortunate."
Other council members said that appropriating this initial $50,000 - the administration had originally requested $150,000 - would at least enable them to start the litigation process so that more information and evidence may become available.
"If this enables more information to be heard, to be gathered, vetted out and clear the air on everything, then so be it," Council Member Elle Cochran said. "At this time, I've voted in favor just to get the process going."
Council Member Stacy Crivello voted in favor of hiring outside counsel because it "is not for us to be the courts. . . . I don't believe I'm the one to put judgment on anyone."
The measure was heard during the last County Council meeting, but there were not enough members present to garner the six votes needed to pass a motion to retain special counsel. With the return of Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa, who had been recovering from a fall that occurred March 5, the council was able to gain the six affirmative votes.
"I am sorry I was not able to be here at that first meeting, however I have been fully informed and am very comfortable in supporting this request today," said Baisa, who returned to work this week. "I think the longer and the more we leave it up to speculation . . . everybody gives their own twist to it and presents what facts they know and most of the time they're not facts, so I'm kind of like let's get on with the process here and let's get to the bottom of it."
She added that she shares the concerns about the expense, but "sometimes we have to spend money on things we don't (want)."
Council Member Michael Victorino also expressed his desire to resolve this as quickly as possible, though he saw the need to hire special counsel in order to do so.
"It's not a good thing that it's gotten like this, I'd like the opportunity to sit down with somebody and come to a collaborative conclusion instead of ending up in court, but it is what it is," Victorino said.
Guzman recused himself from voting on the matter during the last council meeting, saying that Mamuad is "a friend and also a part-time employee in my office." Council Vice Chairman Robert Carroll was excused.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.