The Maui County Council has appointed Maria E. Zielinski, the former Hawaii state Tax Director who suddenly resigned in December following news reports that her department was allegedly interfering with an independent consultant’s work, the new director of its Office of Council Services (OCS). The vote on Apr. 6 was eight to one in favor of Zielinski, with only Councilmember Riki Hokama (a past critic of the OCS) voting against her.
The OCS provides research, clerical and logistical support to Maui County Council members and committees. At least in theory, it’s a nonpartisan office, though two years ago Council Chair Mike White decided that then-OCS Director David Raatz had to go. But Sandy Baz, White’s chosen successor to Raatz, left the office back in December (he returned to his old job as Mayor Alan Arakawa’s Budget Director).
During the Apr. 6 council meeting, four councilmembers spoke highly of Zielinski, but Hokama said nothing before voting no. Hokama also didn’t respond to an Apr. 11 email asking why he voted against Zielinski’s appointment.
At no time during the Apr. 6 County Council discussion on Zielinski’s appointment did anyone refer to her resignation from the Department of Taxation, which took place just four months ago. In fact, no one even mentioned that Zielinski had worked for that department.
Governor David Ige appointed Zielinski, a previous comptroller for the State of Hawaii, to be state Tax Director in December 2014. Her exit four years later occurred during a time of intense controversy and trouble at the Department of Taxation, which is trying–at great expense–to modernize its computer systems. Ige took the project away from Zielinski’s control in July 2017, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported on Dec. 1, 2017, but worse news was to come.
“A consultant hired by the state to oversee the $60 million modernization of the Department of Taxation’s computer systems was instructed by state tax officials on which subjects ‘should and should not’ be addressed in its supposedly independent monitoring reports to lawmakers and the public, according to a new report,” the Star-Advertiser reported on Dec. 1. “The tax department also requested changes in the reports by consultant Advan-Tech LLC before they were made public, which the consultant said is ‘not the norm’ in its experience.”
Just four days later, the Star-Advertiser reported that Zielinski had resigned, though the exact reason has never been made public. “Ford Fuchigami, administrative director in the governor’s office, said Zielinski informed him yesterday that she was resigning,” the Star-Advertiser reported on Dec. 5. “He declined to say if she was asked or forced to resign, saying that he cannot elaborate on a personnel matter.”
A staffer at the Office of Council Services said Zielinski doesn’t start work there until May 1, and couldn’t provide any contact information for her. Zielinski didn’t respond to a Facebook message regarding this story.
Look, none of this means that Zielinski will be a bad OCS Director–or even that she was a poor administrator at the Department of Taxation. But the Maui County Council not even publicly acknowledging the troubling circumstances surrounding her departure from her last job–to say nothing of explaining to the public what exactly happened–is both insulting to members of the public who read the news and simply asking for trouble. Instead, councilmembers used their time during the Apr. 6 meeting to heap praise on Zielinski.
Councilmember Stacy Crivello referred to Zielinski’s undergraduate degrees in accounting and biology from City University of New York, her membership in the Hawaii Society of Certified Public Accountants and her previous experience at the Maui County Department of Finance, Council on Aging and the Maui Humane Society Board of Directors, but said nothing about her time at the state Department of Taxation (Crivello didn’t respond to an email inquiry asking for comment for this story).
“She is creative and enthusiastic with a demonstrated track record of problem-solving skills and organizational abilities,” Crivello said. “She will be a valuable addition to the Office of Council Services.”
Councilmember Yuki Lei Sugimura, who also didn’t respond to an email asking for comment, similarly praised on Zielinski without mentioning her recent resignation. In fact, Sugimura said she interviewed Zielinski and “did do an employment check” on her–by calling a powerful landowner.
“When I was talking to her she mentioned to me that she worked with Peter Baldwin,” Sugimura said during the Apr. 6 Council meeting. “He had glowing reports. The one statement that he said that I think is important is that he said, ‘She is honest as the day is long.’ And that he took financial advice from her. And he also said that sometimes, she didn’t say the things he wanted to hear. And I liked hearing that, too, because it takes courage.”
Councilmember Kelly King said she was “thoroughly impressed” with Zielinski, and that she was “very appreciative that we found somebody of her caliber,” but said nothing about her time at the state Department of Taxation or the questions surrounding her resignation. Reached a few days after the meeting, King said that she did know about Zielinski’s resignation before the Apr. 6 vote.
“Yes, I know about the resignation and was satisfied with the response from both Ms. Zielinski and from those closer to the situation although I was not authorized to do a full investigation,” King said in an Apr. 12 email. “If she is willing to continue on past the end of this council term, I may try to get further confirmation, but her performance throughout the rest of this year should weigh heavily.”
Council Chair Mike White, who said at the Apr. 6 hearing that he “did some checking” into Zielinski, also gave her high marks while steering clear of the controversy surrounding Zielinski’s tenure as state Director of Taxation (White didn’t respond to an email asking for comment).
“I called [former county Director of Finance and former state budget director] Kalbert Young,” White said at the Maui County Council meeting. “He spoke so highly of Maria, her talents and honesty… When I get a recommendation like that from him, it carries a significant amount of weight.”
Photo courtesy State of Hawaii