Mike White is once again Chair of the Maui County Council. Though the Jan. 2, 2016 Organizational Meeting of the Maui County Council stretched past 13 hours, this was never really in doubt. Nor was there any doubt that White–who is also the general manager of the Ka`anapali Beach Hotel–would strip away the independence of the ostensibly apolitical Office of Council Services (OCS) and reduce the influence of those councilmembers he’s deemed threats. White had openly published memos and resolutions outlining all of those actions weeks earlier, and he made good on every single one of them.
At roughly 10:40pm (the meeting started at 2pm), Councilmembers Bob Carroll, Stacey Crivello, Yuki Lei Sugimura, Riki Hokama and White himself voted for White to continue on as Council Chair. Councilmembers Alika Atay, Elle Cochran, Don Guzman and Kelly–all backed by the slow-growth, anti-GMO SAFE Action Fund during the 2016 election–voted no.
Get used to it, kids. You’re gonna see a lot of votes like that in the coming months.
More than 60 members of the public testified at the meeting; most were vehemently opposed to White continuing as Chair. I lost track of the number of times I heard the phrases “rigging the system,” “banana republic” and “illegal power grab.” Their issues were numerous and emotional: White’s insistence on crowning himself Chair in the agenda itself (much later during the meeting, Councilmember King pointed out that the 2015 Organizational Meeting agenda did NOT include any name on the matter of selecting a new Chair); his mysterious sacking of numerous OCS staffers; his installation of former mayoral Budget Director Sandy Baz as the new OCS director, despite the fact that Baz had no experience in the office and wasn’t hired under usual procedures; and White’s apparent creation of a new website (Mauicouncil.org) that looks like an official County Council site but is in fact White’s personal webpage.
By the time the councilmembers themselves began to discuss these matters at 8pm, the bad blood between Guzman and Cochran on one side and White on the other boiled over–something you never see at council meetings. At 10:30pm, an obviously tired and cranky Mayor Alan Arakawa, who was running the meeting until the vote on Chair could take place, blurted out that one of Cochran’s requests for a public hearing was “bullshit.” After gasps of shock filled the chamber, Arakawa said, “Hey, I call it as I see it. Bullshit is bullshit.”
The SAFE-backed councilmembers may not have had the votes to stop White from getting control of the chair again, but they certainly made him crawl over broken glass to get to it.
“I’ll fight all the way through if I have to kiss his ring,” Guzman said at the meeting, and he wasn’t kidding.
“White has been a good leader and he’s a good man,” Guzman said. But after describing recent moves by White as him “fearful of what would happen if he lost control,” Guzman thundered that “things need to change!”
At one point, Guzman said that “Those good ol’ boy, back days are gone.” It was a stunning statement for him, given that a mere two years ago he’d been White’s key lieutenant in toppling then-Council Chair Gladys Baisa. But Guzman openly acknowledged this complicity. “I was part of that,” Guzman said. “People are tired of that.”
First, Guzman, Cochran and King made a series of amendments nominating virtually everyone else on the dais except White to be Chair. All the amendments failed. A surreal moment came when Guzman nominated Bob Carroll to be Chair. Carroll refused, of course (the agenda specifically mentioned that Carroll would be Vice Chair, not Chair, and Carroll wasn’t about to cross White). But Carroll’s logic for refusing to vote himself for Chair was unsound. He said he only wanted the job if he could win without his own vote, but then threw his support behind White, who could only win by voting for himself (Carroll also showed no problem in later voting for himself to be Vice Chair).
Next, Guzman, Cochran and King attempted to call for a public hearing on the Chair selection issue, but Arakawa, after hearing from Corporation Counsel Pat Wong that the County Charter demanded they select a Chair that night, decided to ignore the hearing request. After that, White finally won a 5-4 vote to become Chair and Carroll won a 6-3 vote to be Vice Chair.
White’s first acts as Chair of this new council term weren’t kind to the four SAFE-backed members. With 5-4 votes, he got the council to approve sweeping changes to the committee system and ensure that SAFE-endorsed councilmembers held no majorities on any of them (“I’m not trying to split the council,” White insisted). But White did make an important concession by reversing his decision to reduce various committees to a mere five members. He also reversed his earlier announced committee membership lists–which had zeroed out all four SAFE-backed councilmembers–and agreed that duties and member assignments will go to a public hearing.
Unfortunately, White also made permanent his appointment Sandy Baz to be director of the Office of Council Services–who had been hired on White’s orders just a month ago on the assurance that he’d only be a “temporary” staffer at OCS–sealing the fate of former OCS Director David Raatz, one of the County’s most honest and fair officials.
Again, these moves aren’t surprising. But Guzman was right–White’s moves stem from fear, not strength. A one-vote majority is as precarious as you can get in politics. White has largely chosen to take a hard line in dealing with SAFE-backed councilmembers, but policing his own voting bloc will require a great deal of finesse and attention. Sure, White got everything he wanted last night, but controlling the council through this new era of contentious politics may prove even more difficult.
Editor’s note: the original version of this story included incorrect information on future Council committees. It has been corrected and updated.
Here’s a three-hour video we shot of the councilmembers’ deliberations during the Jan. 2 meeting:
Maui County Council Chair meeting resolution vote – please share
Posted by Maui Time Weekly on Monday, January 2, 2017