[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been updated to include a statement from Councilmember Alika Atay.]
There’s a very curious proposed bill on the Dec. 1 Maui County Council meeting agenda that has dramatic ramifications for the future of the elected panel. It’s a draconian bill born of the serious dysfunction that has marred the County Council ever since the 2016 election.
The bill, put forth by Council Chair Mike White himself, is actually less than a page long. It contains no background, no explicit rationale–just an ever-so-slight modification to the Maui County Code so that Council executive assistants (EAs) can get terminated by “a vote of the council.” As it stands now, only the Council member who hired the EA can fire the EA, but if White’s bill passes, then a simple majority vote of the Council can be enough to sack any councilmember’s aide.
While this may sound like inside-baseball, a bill like this is already having a chilling effect throughout the 8th floor of the county’s Kalana O Maui Building, where all the councilmembers have their offices. Councilmembers rely on their executive assistants to analyze legislation, reach out to the community, meet with department heads and generally make sure that nothing important gets left behind. A bill like this, one staffer who requested anonymity told me, has the potential to “cut a councilmember off at the knees.”
Given the present makeup of the County Council, this bill represents a nuclear option for Mike White. The Council right now is dominated by five members–White, Vice Chair Bob Carroll, Riki Hokama, Stacy Crivello and Yuki Lei Sugimura–all of whom generally vote pro-development and pro-big business. If White’s bill passes, then this voting block will be able hobble any of the other councilmembers–Alika Atay, Elle Cochran, Kelly King and Don Guzman–by stripping them of their valued assistants. It’s a powerful tool for keeping adversaries–current and future–off balance.
Mike White did not return email and phone messages requesting comment for this story. But it’s clear after talking with people very familiar with the inner workings of the County Council and obtaining various Council correspondence to and from White that the bill springs the Council Chair’s longstanding battle with Brian Bardellini, one of Councilmember Atay’s assistants. In fact, on Oct. 16 of this year, White hand-delivered a letter to Atay that explicitly called for Bardellini’s termination (click here to read the letter).
“I have had several recent, separate reports in which your employee, Executive Assistant Brian Bardellini was loud, aggressive, intimidating, confrontational, and unprofessional towards a councilmember, the Supervising Legislative Attorney, and Office of Council Services staff,” White wrote in the letter. “Mr. Bardellini’s behavior is completely unacceptable in the workplace and will not be tolerated any longer. You are aware of his uncivil behavior, including being present when it has occurred, and yet have taken no action to address it.”
Reached for comment, Bardellini denied being unprofessional in any way. “I may be curt and abrasive, but never hostile, never violent,” he said. Bardellini also made headlines a few months ago when the Hawaii Department of Agriculture got a court order forcing him to let them onto the Huelo property where he lives so they could spray for little fire ants, though that incident doesn’t seem to be at the heart of White’s concerns with him.
Atay wasn’t available to comment by presstime.*
In any case, White’s letter doesn’t detail specifically what Bardellini did that White insists is so wrong. But it does lay out exactly how White will squeeze Atay if he refuses to terminate Bardellini. In the letter, White says that he’s instructed all OCS staff and legislative attorneys “to no longer communicate with Mr. Bardellini in any way.” He also says OCS staff will henceforth only take direction from Atay personally–an unprecedented and insulting step.
“I understand that Mr. Bardellini has free access to your official email account and uses your account to send messages,” White wrote to Atay. “Staff therefore has no way of discerning which email messages are from you personally and which ones are from Mr. Bardellini. As such, directions from you to staff must only occur in person and future emails from your office will be ignored.”
What’s more, in his letter White said he was banning Bardellini from even entering the Kalana O Maui Building’s 7th floor, where the OCS offices are located. “Mr. Bardellini no longer has any business with the Office of Council Services and is prohibited from being on the seventh floor,” White told Atay. “Should Mr. Bardellini disregard this directive, I have instructed staff to call the Maui Police Department. In addition, we will thereafter seek the assistance of the Corporation Counsel to apply for a restraining order with the court.”
White’s letter is condescending and insulting. In the letter, White even lectures Atay on both his professional responsibilities and the meaning of “aloha.”
“As Mr. Bardellini’s direct supervisor, you are responsible for his actions as well as his continued employment,” White wrote. “If Mr. Bardellini were an employee of the Chair’s office or the Office of Council Services, his employment would have been terminated based upon his conduct long ago. In the past, the employment of other legislative branch employees has been terminated for conduct far less egregious than Mr. Bardellini’s behavior… As a promoter of aloha, it reflects poorly upon you to have allowed the situation with Mr. Bardellini to persist for months without taking corrective action. As a councilmember, it is your responsibility to properly manage your staff, supervise them, and work cooperatively with other councilmembers and the Office of Council Services employees.”
After telling Atay that “Terminating Mr. Bardellini’s employment would be consistent with the past practice of the legislative branch,” White gave Atay until “the close of business on Friday, October 20” to deal with Bardellini. White then closed the letter with an additional threat.
“If I receive another report of aggressive, intimidating, or harassing behavior from Mr. Bardellini, I will take additional corrective steps to protect councilmembers and staff,” White wrote. “This may include suspending Office of Council Services assistance to you.”
Atay refused to fire Bardellini. But all of Atay’s executive assistants (including Trinette Furtado, who ran against White in the 2016 election) found themselves cut off from the Office of Council Services.
Then on Nov. 13, White wrote another letter to Atay, this time a bit more conciliatory, though it was hardly good news. “I am writing to you to clarify that the Committee staff and resources of the Office of Council Services have not been withdrawn and are available to you,” White wrote to Atay. “As mentioned in my prior letter to you, staff have been instructed to interact with you personally regarding Council business and to take direction from you, and you alone. Staff has also been instructed not to interact with or take direction from your Executive Assistant Brian Bardellini.”
The result from all this has been confusion, paralysis and, according to individuals close to the County Council, repeatedly cancelled Water Resource Committee agendas due to misunderstandings and a complete lack of meaningful communication between Atay’s office and the OCS. Oh, and in response to Atay’s refusal to sack Bardellini, White went ahead with one of his “additional corrective steps” and came up with the bill the Council will discuss tomorrow.
The bill appears under Communication No. 17-484, on page 5 of the agenda. The County Council can either vote to refer this to a committee for further discussion or just file it, effectively killing it.
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*UPDATE: About 40 minutes after this post went up, Councilmember Alika Atay provided a statement on Council Chair Mike White’s correspondence. Here it is, in full:
It is unfortunate the County Council is dealing with these challenges. Regardless, there have been some fraudulent accusations that need clarification.
While Mike White states he has received several complaints regarding Mr. Bardellini, there is no evidence to support this allegation.
The Maui County Violence in the Workplace Action Plan provides that such a report be immediately investigated by the Chair, the Dept. of Personnel, and Corporation Counsel; yet to this date there have been no investigations and no notices to our office of any complaints.
In an abundance of caution we invoked the Uniform Information Practices Act requesting any and all information regarding complaints against Brian Bardellini. This Act required Mike White to respond and submit any related complaint documents within 10 days.
To date, more than a month later, there has been no response and not a single document or complaint was offered.
We believe Mike White’s threats are likely related to millions of dollars of mishandled tax money that Mr. Bardellini has become aware of and is investigating.
While Mr. Bardellini may be passionate, intense, and energetic, he has never been violent or hostile.
Mr. Bardellini was and is my campaign chair. Moreover, his policy, legislative analysis, government accountability and budget work in the office is indispensable to my duties as an elected official.
My agenda as a Councilmember is to advance progressive goals; this is just one in a series of oppressive tactics to undermine those goals.
I cannot and will not support the subversion of democracy.
The Maui County Council meeting starts at 9am on Friday, Dec. 1. It takes place in the Council Chambers on the 8th floor of the Kalana O Maui Building (200 S. High St., Wailuku).
Photo of Mike White courtesy Maui County Council