[NOTE: On Mar. 25, Council Chair Mike White responded to my Mar. 22 inquiry in regards to this story. His statement appears at the end of this post.]
On Mar. 1 of this year, Maui County Council Member Elle Cochran submitted a proposal to Council Chair Mike White asking to create a special housing committee. It would expand on the findings of a Temporary Investigative Group (TIG) that had been created back in 2016 to study an increase in Maui County’s housing inventory.
“I was the Chair of the TIG and we published a report of recommendations that were the result of hundreds of hours of work,” Cochran said in a statement given to MauiTime. “We had the support of the development industry and environmentalists. I only have six months left in my role as Council Member and I wanted to ensure that these solutions were acted on, and the TIG report didn’t end up as another study that collects dust on a shelf while our residents suffer from the housing crisis.”
But then nothing happened. White didn’t put the housing matter on the Mar. 9 Council agenda. Cochran said White gave her no reason for his action. Cochran again submitted her proposal, this time for the Mar. 23 Council meeting. Once again, White didn’t post the matter, and once again, he didn’t explain why. Finally, one of Cochran’s staffers cornered White and asked him why he wasn’t putting the housing matter on the agenda. According to the statement Cochran provided to MauiTime, White said that as Council Chair, he has the authority to decide what should–and shouldn’t–get posted on the Council agenda.
Cochran further alleged that this is part of a pattern of behavior on White’s part. She said it’s also occurred with her proposal to ban sunscreens containing Oxybenzone and Octinoxate (though that bill unanimously passed a first reading at the County Council’s Dec. 1, 2017 meeting, it hasn’t appeared on any subsequent Council agenda). Cochran said White also (initially) refused to schedule her bill that would gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which was to be part of the Hawai‘i State Association of Counties (HSAC) legislative package and sent to the 2018 state Legislature. But because of White’s delays in scheduling the bill–delays White said were due to both his discretion as Council Chair and his personal dislike of the bill–it never made it into the package of bills the County of Maui submitted to the Legislature.
White didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. White’s response to my Mar. 22 inquiry appears at the end of this story. But White explained his rationale during a discussion of Cochran’s minimum wage bill during the Council’s Sept. 5, 2017 Policy, Economic Development and Agricultural Committee meeting, the minutes show.
“[T]he Chair’s responsibility is to decide what is ready and not ready for discussion at the Council level,” White said in response to questions from Cochran regarding the decision not to put her minimum wage bill on the Council’s agenda. “And so, the Chair withheld that because I felt that we needed to have further discussion and the bill needed to be put through a discussion that was fruitful and we would be passing a bill onto HSAC that I felt that HSAC might actually entertain and move through the process. That’s my goal and if this passes, it passes. I don’t support it at this point, but if it passes out, it can get to the HSAC Package one way or another. There’s nothing set in stone. My challenge is that I still don’t support the package or the measure as it is.”
I could find nothing in either the Maui County Charter or the Rules of the Council to back up White’s assertion that he has the authority to “decide” what should appear on Council agendas. I did find that one of his duties as Council Chair is to “Receive all communications and present them to the Council or a committee before which the subject matter is pending,” though that’s a bit different than giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on everything that reaches his desk.
In any case, White elaborated on his decision not to schedule a vote on Cochran’s minimum wage proposal at the Sept. 22, 2017 Maui County Council. “So, the reason the Chair didn’t post it is because I didn’t feel it was, it moved far enough along to address the majority of the concerns that were brought up in Committee,” White said, according to the minutes of that meeting. “And I felt we still had time so, I was not aware that the deadline was an absolute. So, that’s, you know, I apologize if there’s hurt feelings.”
Ultimately, White sort-of relented, and placed the minimum wage bill on Council’s Sept. 22, 2017 agenda, though by then it was moot as it had missed the deadline for submission in the county’s legislative package.
“The democratic process gives one person one vote,” Cochran said in a statement given to MauiTime. “If Councilmember White doesn’t support a piece of legislation, he has the ability to vote against it. But to subvert the process altogether and prevent a piece of legislation that could otherwise pass from getting a vote at all, by abusing his position as Council Chair, is a threat to the democratic process and a government by and for the people.”
Here is Council Chair Mike White’s Mar. 25 response to Council Member Elle Cochran’s allegations:
I flat out disagree with Ms. Cochran’s power grab to take duties out of the Council’s standing committees and put herself in-charge of a new special committee.
Why would I would want to go along with a request to put her in charge of affordable housing, when she has a track record of voting against projects? Most recently, she tried to derail the Hana affordable housing project. She participated in a meeting in Hana the night before the Land Use meeting, with Councilmember [Alika] Atay advocating against the development.
Pushing this issue at this particular time makes it look purely political to help her mayoral campaign. I simply do not think it is right.
In addition, if she took the time to research and complete due diligence on the sunscreen bill, I would not be in a situation of having to rehash this issue and conduct further research.
So far, 13 letters have been sent to state, national, and international agencies and experts, asking their opinion on the proposed legislation. It has taken time to receive all responses back.
One of the most important responses we are waiting for is a joint response from the State Attorney General, Department of Land and Natural Resources, and Department of Health on a variety of issues.
Once all the information is received, an appropriate panel will be formed, and the experts input will be taken into consideration.
I support the bill and credit goes to Ms. Cochran for bringing it forward, but any legislation must be legally defensible.
Redrafting the legislation is necessary. As written, the bill is not signed by Corporation Counsel. Staff continues to work on this matter, but we have run into budget session and therefore, this issue will likely be taken up after the session concludes. This will also give the State Legislature the time to fully consider their own legislation, which is still moving.
Photo of Council Chair Mike White courtesy County of Maui