LC Director Glenn Mukai,
Bet you never thought we’d say this, but we’re actually missing Frank Silva right now. Sure, there was definitely a gangster vibe about how your predecessor ran the Maui County Department of Liquor Control (a job he held for 22 years), but he also had a sense of class about him.
Make no mistake–Silva was a tough guy. He sent his investigators after establishments all manner of chickenshit reasons: timesheets that spelled an employee’s name a bit differently than on her official liquor card; rappers using foul language on stage during a show; customers–heaven forbid!–crowding walkways.
This isn’t surprising, given the nature of the LC. It’s annual budget hovers near $3 million, but it’s not like other departments. The LC has its own funding source–licensee fees and fines–and that makes it pretty damned powerful.
But Silva also seemed to understand when to ease off the pressure. He grasped that great bureaucratic rule of always seeking power, but by doing so in a way that didn’t look like he was seeking power.
You’ve had this job since June 1 or so, but we can’t shake this feeling that you’ve adopted all of Silva’s bad habits, but none of his good ones. You’re still pretty new, so we’ll grant you some leeway. But this isn’t 1950, and American society has made great strides in the field of government accountability.
Case in point: the whole way you handled former LC Deputy Director Tracy Fujita Villarosa’s exit from the department leaves a great deal to be desired. It also sends a powerful message across the county–one that you wish to exercise absolute power over the department.
Let’s be clear about this: she told us that you gave her two days notice to vacate her office. There was to be no transition time, you said. She was to clean out her office and be gone. While we’ve had our disagreements with some of Fujita Villarosa’s policies and practices, we’ve never denied that she was capable. She spent five years as deputy director–a job you held many years prior–and she was more than qualified to take over as director. That the Liquor Commission narrowly chose you over her in no way diminishes her institutional knowledge and experience (oh, and in case you were wondering whatever became of her, she got a new job over at the county’s Office of Council Services–have fun with that in April when it comes time for you to testify during budget hearings).
Look, it’s fine if you didn’t want to work with Fujita Villarosa. To be fair, that would have been kind of awkward, given that both of you were competing for the director slot. But to can her with just two days notice was beyond rude–it was authoritarian. Though given some of your actions since then, we’re guessing you’re fine with that designation.
For instance, at the Aug. 10 Liquor Commission meeting, you gave what we’ll generously call mixed signals as to your desire to even have a deputy director. For instance, you told the Liquor Commission that you were forming a special committee to find someone qualified. But on Aug. 11, The Maui News quoted you as saying that you did not want a deputy director “because I told the commission exactly what I’m going to do and I can only focus on that.”
With all due respect, what kind of double talk is that?
Not that you could house a deputy director at this point–even if you went out and hired one this afternoon. We can’t believe The Maui News didn’t mention this in their story on the Aug. 10 Liquor Commission hearing, but how did you manage to break the deputy director’s office?
You told the commissioners that Fujita Villarosa’s office has been empty since she left. But LC Supervisor Karilee Yoshizawa (who is also your daughter–a point we’ll get to soon) said that LC personnel had been using the old office as a break room until a mysterious “foul odor” developed. Now we’re not talking burned microwave popcorn foul, but bring-in-a-Haz-Mat-team foul. Or put another way, something entirely new stinks at the LC. Seriously–you brought in an actual Haz-Mat team to deal with this, and still the odor persists?
Anyway, back to your daughter working directly beneath you. Or right next to you, as the photo in the Aug. 11 Maui News shows. And way to deliver one of the most politically tone-deaf statements we’ve ever seen when the paper called you on it!
“I don’t even think of father, daughter,” you told The Maui News. “She might be overworked since I’ve been here.”
Wow. Just plain wow. It’s stuff like this that makes us remember Frank Silva with fondness. That guy had two of his sons working at the LC, but at least he was shrewd enough to eventually stick them over at the Lahaina office.
Look, here’s the deal with nepotism: it’s insidious not because of what YOU think, but what everyone who works for you thinks. Yes, Yoshizawa has worked at the department for a decade or so. And while you didn’t promote her, you removed–for your own vaguely articulated reasons–a level of management that once sat between you two. Now she answers directly to you. This sends a dramatic, powerful message to the rest of your staff.
But we all know this is all just window dressing. The real problems here lie with your relationship with the licensees. And the county’s been buzzing about that since from almost the moment you sat down as director.
“The new liquor commissioner you appointed Ida [sic] demon,” Maui resident Sid Alpert wrote in an email to the Maui County Mayor’s Office on July 31 (we obtained a copy of the email through the state’s open records law). “He is screwing with the lives of longtime establishment owners. He is drunk with power and should be fired and put up on charges.”
We learned of this email because it appeared at the end of the Aug. 10 Liquor Commission hearing as a point of discussion. “It’s kind of outrageous,” Liquor Commissioner Stephen West said. And though you didn’t really talk about it, you did explain that your department really turned up the heat on establishments this year when it came time for them to renew their licenses. To wit:
Stephen West: “How many businesses have been affected by this?”
Glenn Mukai: “45.”
A month ago, we started hearing rumors that a half dozen establishments were facing suspension of their liquor licenses because of minor, even trivial errors in their renewal applications. Then a few weeks ago, the number rose to 17. Now it stands at 45.
For those who may not be familiar with this, each year bars and restaurants need to renew their liquor licenses. The renewal application itself is just a page long, but establishments also have to hand in their certificates of insurance and tax clearance certificates (state and federal). The deadline is June 15, but the license itself doesn’t expire until June 30.
“What is that two weeks for?” Wailuku attorney Dave Jorgensen, who represents a long list of liquor licensees and testified at the Aug. 10 hearing, told us after the hearing about what he considered the “fundamental confusion” that led to so much trouble. “The chairman [Robert Tanaka] seemed to say that it’s time to make corrections. But the director sees it as time to start over. The problem is that two weeks isn’t enough time to file a new application. You need three to four weeks, minimum.”
Yes, we’re dealing with a bunch of licensees that, for whatever reason, either got their renewal application in late or really, really close to the deadline. And ultimately, it’s hard to argue that they don’t bear ultimate responsibility here.
But was it really necessary to bring the hammer down on establishments who handed in applications with misplaced commas? Or that were printed on the wrong color paper? To borrow a phrase from Jorgensen, these are not “material problems,” and thus should have no bearing on the ultimate decision to renew or not renew.
Mike Bunyard, a bartender at the Westin Maui, also testified at the Aug. 10 hearing. He testified that the hotel’s license had been suspended at 4:40 in the afternoon of July 1 “apparently because our revenue reporting got delayed in the mail, which was certified, because of back-up from tropical storm Darby.” For Bunyard, dealing with the suspension was a nightmare.
“I was told that they were trying to contact anyone at the county, department directors or anything they could do to figure it out,” he testified. “All the bars, lounges and room service would have to quit selling at 4:30. Between 6:30 and 7, we got a call saying we could now open all bars and outlets and start serving again. However, the hotel had already cut many of our bartenders and wait staff because of lack of business and our bars and lounges.”
For his part, Jorgensen told us that none of his clients had license renewal problems this year. But he was also clear on why–they paid him a great deal of money to get the paperwork done on time (he said he even had to fly to Oahu to get federal tax certificates signed for four of his clients because the Maui IRS office closed inexplicably for two weeks–the expenses of which he justifiably billed to his clients). For many licensees on Maui, that’s not an option.
Of course, merely retaining an attorney doesn’t guarantee anything. Wailuku attorney Craig Nakamura, who also represents a variety of Maui liquor licensees, testified at the Aug. 10 about one of his clients, the Maui Beach Hotel. Problems with its license renewal have left the hotel dry since July 1.
In the past, Silva had simply waived the need for a certificate of occupancy for the hotel. But you extended no such courtesy to the hotel. “We have not been able to find a certificate of occupancy for the entire hotel,” Nakamura said at the Aug. 10 hearing.
“Silva was more liberal,” Nakamura added. “He was supportive of the industry and he was able to allow us to have a few days to do corrections.”
Please think over what Nakamura said. He testified in an open hearing that Silva–former LC Director Frank Silva–was “more liberal” than you in regards to license renewals. Unless, of course, the only reason you turned all these licensees upside down was to slap them around and show them who’s the boss now. But that would be a reprehensible act from a rookie who feels that arbitrary despotism is an acceptable substitute for actual management. That wouldn’t be you, right? Then again, you did give The Maui News a lot of talk about “transparency,” but then didn’t return our phone call for this story.
Very truly yours,
Max Errickson and Anthony Pignataro