From their eighth floor offices in the Kalana O Maui building in Wailuku, the Maui County Council members had one of the best vantage points on the island to watch the demolition of the old Post Office at the corner of Wells and South High Streets. They could hear–and feel–the rumble of the jackhammers as contractors slowly dismantled the tough old building, which dated to 1959. On the morning of Thursday, Jan. 17, Councilmember Mike White looked out a window and snapped a photo of a Bobcat near the building, which he then posted to his Facebook page. “Looks like they are beginning to demolish the Old Wailuku Post Office,” he wrote.
At the time, White’s photo and caption were matter-of-fact, even boring. These days, though, they’re a lot more damning. That’s because just two weeks later, on Feb. 1, White began publicly grilling officials from Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration about their decision to demolish the building (though White has since removed the photo from his Facebook page, MauiTime obtained a screenshot of the image).
Since then, the demolition of the old Wailuku Post Office has grown into a full-fledged scandal, complete with front-page stories in The Maui News. At a June 17 hearing, the Maui County Council’s Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs (PIA) Committee was suddenly shocked–Shocked!–that the administration had decided to knock down the old post office. They voted 6-3 (Gladys Baisa, Bob Carroll and Don Couch dissented) to authorize a formal investigation into the “potential misuse” of funds to pay for the demolition of the building that the council thought was going to be “rehabilitated.” Such an investigation may require the council to hire outside attorneys (that the brand-new County Auditor just appointed by the council would be a better investigator seems not to have come up).
“The Council made a clear, unequivocal policy decision to rehabilitate the building as it existed when approving the Fiscal Year 2012 budget,” said PIA Committee Chairman Riki Hokama in a June 10 press release on the hearing. “The Mayor cannot unilaterally decide to demolish the building and plan construction of new buildings because he thinks it’s a better idea. He must follow the Charter’s well-established legislative process. Sweeping the problem under the rug would send the wrong message and, frankly, it would call into question the Council’s integrity.”
It’s not surprising that Arakawa’s administration vehemently objects to Hokama’s assertions. “We look forward to clarifying our position to the council in regards to this matter,” Maui County Managing Director Keith Regan said in a statement sent to the press immediately after the June 17 PIA hearing. “We were in fact prepared to answer any questions today and even submitted more than 200 pages of supporting public documents, which illustrate the timeline of communication with council members in regards to the old Wailuku Post Office project. This timeline shows when we met with the council about the project, what was discussed and any subsequent communication with the council either as a whole, or individually.”
But largely missing from the public and media debates about the fate of the old Post Office has been a simple question:
Is the Maui County Council nuts?
Given the circumstances–and the fact that the public record shows that for the last two years Arakawa’s people have been briefing the Council on their plans to demolish the old Wailuku Post Office–it’s more than a fair question. The same public record shows no one at the County Council questioned those demolition plans until White raised the issue on Feb. 1–two weeks into the demolition. What’s more, even after the Feb. 1 hearing, the Council never obtained (or apparently even discussed) a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the administration to halt the demolition, which proceeded on schedule.
Councilmembers Hokama and White, who have been leading the charge for an inquiry into the post office demolition, didn’t return calls for comment left at their offices. But one of the most mind-numbing aspects to the controversy is that the council has largely (if not completely) supported the demolition. In fact, White has been completely open and honest about that.
“We like the plans that you’ve come up with,” White told County Capital Improvement Project Coordinator Wendy Taomoto during a Feb. 1 Council Budget and Finance Committee hearing. “And I think we all appreciate what you’re doing, but I just ask that you, that the Administration respects the Committee’s requirements and responsibilities.”
The “plans” White mentioned come from the planning firm Group 70, which county records show has been paid about $750,000 to design a large civic center “complex” that includes the current Kalana O Maui building and a couple new structures, including one at the site of the old post office. All this White apparently liked. What he didn’t like is how the administration was paying for both those plans and the post office demolition, which cost about $660,000.
“[I]t occurred to us that if we’re, if you’re pulling money from the Old Wailuku Post Office appropriation, the title of that is ‘rehabilitation,’” White told Taomoto during the Feb. 1 Budget and Finance Committee hearing, according to the minutes. “And, and the description and justification says, ‘rehabilitation of the Old Wailuku Post Office acquired by the County of Maui in 2009, to allow for occupancy for offices, meeting rooms, storage, improvements and anticipated to include rehabilitation of roof to extend the lifespan, upgrade 50 year old electrical, removal of asbestos on the first and second floor, removal of lead where necessary, install fire sprinkler improvements, exterior concrete repairs, and necessary structural repairs, so I want to… I’m making this point simply because I want the Administration to understand that we’re not the bad guys.”
White’s point goes to the heart of why the Council’s sudden outrage at the demolition is such a head-scratcher.
On this point White was correct: the $1.5 million appropriation, passed in June 2011, that the administration used to pay for the Group 70 plans and the post office demolition, did talk about “rehabilitation” of the building. But what White didn’t mentioned is that Arakawa’s people held numerous public briefings for the council on their plans–plans White apparently found acceptable.
“I think it’s important for us to take a look at it and agree what is the best alternative,” White said during the April 5, 2011 County Council Budget and Finance Committee hearing, the minutes show. “I’m not sure that it makes sense to spend $6 million on an older building which is in such close proximity to the County Building if another alternate [sic] might be to use that space for a larger building and, and one that either matches or exceeds the size of the, the building that we’re in now.”
Nearly six weeks later (but still before the council passed their budget appropriations), White followed up with a May 18, 2011 letter to Managing Director Keith Regan about the pending $1.5 million appropriation. After acknowledging that the appropriation was “to rehabilitate the Old Wailuku Post Office,” he went on to ask for more specifics concerning a recent report on what the administration intended to do with the post office.
“Please advise as to whether the Arakawa Administration plans to complete any further studies on the various options, most notably the demolition and construction of a new building?” White wrote. “The report lacks detail on the square footage of a potential new building, the long-term savings from rented office space moving to a County-owned facility, and a thorough understanding of industrial health issues present in the existing building. May I also request the Administration’s plans and a timeline for the Old Wailuku Post Office being transformed to a usable space?”
Managing Director Keith Regan responded to White five days later. “The report referenced, “Old Wailuku Post Office Property Inspection Summary,” was drafted under the [Charmaine] Tavares Administration. It is essentially a compilation of cursory inspections and rough estimates designed to provide some basic direction and options to explore for the future of the OWPO property. Our understanding is that Mayor Arakawa will be meeting with Council Chair [Danny] Mateo to discuss future options for this particular property. One of these options is to demolish and construct a new building.”*
On June 18 of this year, The Maui News reported that White said council members didn’t learn of the administration’s plan to pay for the demolition with the $1.5 million appropriation until the Feb. 1, 2013 budget committee hearing. While the May 18, 2011 letter from White doesn’t directly contradict that assertion, it raises serious questions as to what exactly council members were hearing during the numerous briefings and hearings on the fate of the old post office.
Still, the council had more opportunities to question the Arakawa Administration’s demolition plans and object to their use of the $1.5 million appropriation. At the Oct. 30, 2012 County Council Budget and Finance Committee hearing, Cost of Government Commission Vice-Chairman Ron Kawahara told the committee that his commission “recommends that the old Wailuku Post Office building acquired at a cost of $1,540,000 in August 2009 be demolished and a new office structure built.”
At that same hearing, the minutes show Sananda Baz, Arakawa’s budget director, told the committee that “within another couple of weeks, there will be an RFP [Request for Proposals] issued for the demolition of the old Wailuku Post Office.”
If the councilmembers had concerns over the demolition, that was the perfect time to raise them. But the minutes show no one on the committee objected. In November 2012, the RFP went out, and The Maui News published a story on the pending demolition. But no one on the County Council voiced any public objections until Feb. 1, 2013.
Those PIA Committee members who voted on June 17 for a special investigation into the Arakawa Administration’s handling of the demolition used high language to justify the inquiry’s reported $20,000 expense. “We are responsible for for doing the checks and balances,” White said, according to a June 18 Maui News story on the committee hearing.
White is certainly correct, but a true investigation into the post office demolition should ask why the County Council wasn’t carrying out those “checks and balances” for the past two years, and why council members repeatedly listened to administration officials speak of knocking down the old post office, but didn’t bother to ask how they intended to pay for it until after the jackhammers went to work.
In any case, the earliest the County Council itself could vote on a formal investigation is Friday, July 5.
*This story originally neglected to include Regan’s response to White.