I gotta hand it to Maui County Councilmember Mike White: he’ll do what he needs to do to maintain power. Undoubtedly a student of Machiavelli, he’s spent the last two years as Maui County Council chairperson clearly more willing to be feared than loved. After all, he seized control of the council back in January 2015 through what then-Council Chairperson Gladys Baisa called a “coup,” allegedly orchestrated by White and Councilmembers Don Guzman and Riki Hokama.
There have been many changes on the Council since then (Guzman, who became Vice Chair, has since become one of White’s most dangerous adversaries), but White’s thirst for power remains unquenched. Indeed, the agenda for the Council’s upcoming Jan. 2 meeting–the first that will include newly elected Councilmembers Alika Atay, Kelly King and Yuki Lei Sugimura–shows that he’s already crowned himself Chair for another two years (that act has drawn an ethics complaint from Shaka Movement’s Mark Sheehan, which the Board of Ethics will hear later in January).
The November 2016 election drastically changed the County Council. There are now four members of the new Ohana Coalition–who advocate slow growth, anti-GMO policies–on the council (one of them, Guzman, had been so instrumental to White’s taking power away from Baisa just two years ago). Combine with the five so-called pro-establishment members (White, Hokama, Stacy Crivello, Bob Carroll and, most likely, Yuki Lei Sugimura), that locks in a tight 5-4 council split. That’s literally no margin of error on big votes, which means Chairperson White will have to police his votes pretty much non-stop (which probably explains why White dumped Guzman as Vice Chair in favor of Carroll).
This reality seems to have unnerved White so much that he’s noticeably tightened his grip on power–even to the point of unilaterally sacking people from the ostensibly independent, non-political Office of Council Services (OCS). And why not? According to a Dec. 29 statement he posted on
the Council’s Mauicouncil.org, a private website White apparently set up (though it includes the County of Maui seal), White says he’s under siege from wicked conspiracies bent on toppling him.
“Shortly after the election, Councilmember Robert Carroll informed me that he had been approached by Councilmember Elle Cochran offering him a chairmanship of the Council with the support of the other members supported by the Ohana Coalition,” White wrote. “In a subsequent discussion with Mr. Carroll, Ms. Cochran suggested that if he joined their majority he would have to discuss with Councilmember Don Guzman as to which one of them would be chair… Through these actions, it was clear that Councilmembers Guzman and Cochran were trying to gather a new majority for the next Council term, but did not have the support of at least five of the councilmembers-elect.” Later in the same post, White calls his opponents “vindictive” and accuses them of “lashing out with nasty personal attacks.”
These are not the statements of a rational leader, but rather the paranoid ramblings of a frightened despot. Even if he’s right about Cochran and Guzman trying to convince Carroll to join their cause (which is how he came to become chairperson in 2015, remember), why is that bad, given both the manner in which White first became Chair and how he’s subsequently put the screws to them?
At roughly the same time White accused Cochran and Guzman of plotting against him, Council Resolution No. 17-5, which establishes the council’s standing committees, became public. It lists the proposed memberships of eight committees, but none of which will have a majority of Ohana Coalition members. Put simply, White zeroed out the voting power of the Ohana Coalition members in every single County Council committee, all but eliminating their ability to set the agenda on any topic.
I can’t overstate the importance of this. Given the recent closure of the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar plantation, its owner Alexander & Baldwin (A&B) now has 37,000 acres of prime land to play with. What happens with that land–and the laws governing how the county does long range planning and community plans–will be some of the key issues facing the incoming County Council.
For White to become Chair again, he must count on members Carroll, Crivello, Hokama and Sugimura. And when you add up all the contributions that Alexander & Baldwin’s political action committee gave these members since 2010, you get a total of $26,000. But when you add up all of A&B HI PAC’s contributions to the four Ohana Coalition members, you get just $6,000 (and all of that went to Guzman). This means that White has arranged it so that council members sympathetic to the interests of Alexander & Baldwin will control the outcome of every single council committee.
I’m sorry, White was saying something about certain members being vindictive?
Of course, the Maui County Council still actually has to vote for White to be new chair, and that process starts at 2pm on Monday, Jan. 2. Now how’s this for a surreal possibility: it’s likely that someone will nominate Bob Carroll to be Chairperson (a vastly more powerful position than that of Vice Chair, which is what White promised him).
Carroll is an immensely logical candidate to be Chair. He’s spent many years on the council, is clearly dedicated to his constituents and has a reputation for being a gentle, fair voice. But if White has properly policed his votes, then everyone gathered in the council chamber will hear Carroll vote down himself to be chair–even though the four Ohana Coalition councilmembers would certainly back him over White.
Think about this: all Carroll has to do to become Maui County Council Chairperson is vote for himself. That’s it.
This is White’s dilemma for not just the vote for him to become Chair again, but for every big vote coming before the 2017-2018 County Council. And given the amount of money organizations like A&B HI PAC have invested in him ($8,000 for White alone, by my count), he doesn’t have a lot of leeway.
The County Council meeting will start at 2pm on Monday, Jan. 2 in the Council Chamber on the 8th floor of the Kalana O Maui building (200 S. High St., Wailuku). The council will take testimony from the public before voting.
Photo courtesy Maui County Council