As you’d expect, a lot was said at last night’s Kula Community Association-sponsored candidates’ forum, which included about a dozen people running for various local and state offices on Maui. But of particular note was the panel of five candidates running for the Maui County Council’s Waikapu-Wailuku-Waiehu-Waihee seat, currently held by Mike Victorino, who’s termed out this year. And in that panel, the way candidates Alika Atay, Joseph Blackburn, Dain Kane, Keith Regan and Hana Steel dealt with the possibility that the county would someday soon adopt a “county manager” form of government was especially interesting.
Or rather, how some of the candidates handled the issue. No offense to Atay or Blackburn, but when your fellow candidates are current and former county officials (and in one weird case, someone who’s somehow simultaneously a current AND former county official), you’re going to get sidelined.
Put simply, a County Council special committee recently recommended that the county amend its charter to take control over the day-to-day operations of the various county departments away from the current elected mayor and give it to a professional manager–someone who answers to the County Council itself. While this system is used by many counties on the Mainland, it’s certainly novel here.
Anyway, let’s start with former County Councilmember Dain Kane. He chalked up the whole discussion of whether such a manager is necessary to a “communication breakdown” between the mayor’s office and the council. “It’s a human problem,” he said before adding that he personally had a preference for the existing mayoral structure.
It’s a fair position, of course, but Kane neglected to mention that during his time in office–and especially when he chaired the County Council–Kane and then-Mayor Alan Arakawa had an adversarial relationship. It wasn’t as bad as that which plagues Arakawa and current Council Chairperson Mike White, but it… okay, it was bad.
“Another key challenger, Wailuku Councilman Dain Kane, 43, has accused Arakawa of leaving lawmakers out of the loop on major initiatives, and failing to treat council members and others with ‘fairness’ and ‘dignity,’” the Honolulu Advertiser reported on July 27, 2006, during that year’s mayoral race.
Was all that just a “communication breakdown,” too, Kane?
But Kane’s response to the question was nothing compared to that of Regan, who’s been the county’s Managing Director since Arakawa returned to the mayoral office in 2011. Though Regan’s title sounds lofty, he can’t hire or fire department heads, so his real power in county government is limited.
Regan approached question of a potential county manager–someone who would all but eliminate the very job Regan holds–exactly as I imagined he would. “I’ve often asked, ‘What is broken? What needs fixing?’” Regan said. “There really ought to be systemic issues with that structure. I don’t see that.” Though Regan added (without elaboration) that the county might conceivably need a professional county manager “maybe five to 10 years down the road,” he said the county is “not ready for that yet.”
If Regan wants to find a “systemic” reason for changing the county charter, he need only look in the mirror. Regan’s own words–surreptitiously recorded three years ago by former Maui County Film Commissioner Harry Donenfeld–make this abundantly clear.
Let’s flash back to early March 2013 (click here for the October 2015 story I wrote on the meeting). Then Regan, mayoral Chief of Staff Herman Andaya and county communications director Rod Antone sat Donenfeld down at a Kahului Starbucks to tell him to stop bad-mouthing film producer Ryan Kavanugh–a major Arakawa campaign supporter who was also trying to convince the state Legislature to pass lucrative tax credits for film productions in Hawaii. The language Regan used during that talk exemplifies why so many people in Maui County want to see the mayor’s office stripped of a great many of its powers.
“Ultimately, I think what Rod is saying is that our primary goal above all else is to get the mayor re-elected,” Regan told Donenfeld (I’ve listened to the audio recording of the conversation). “Nothing else really matters because if the mayor is not re-elected none of us have jobs. Let’s be very frank. We’re all political. We’re very connected to the mayor. If he loses, we lose, our families lose, those who depend on us lose. I think you need to understand where we’re all coming from.”
In Regan’s world, administration officials work for one purpose only: to make sure the mayor gets re-elected. Next to this, Regan says, “nothing else really matters.” A few minutes later in his conversation with Donenfeld, Regan returned to this point again. “I’ve had the mayor tell me, straight to my face, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about me,’” Regan said. “He’s told me that in private. I respect that because he’s right.”
No, he’s not right. The county charter doesn’t say county departments exist solely to further a mayor’s political aspirations. It doesn’t say “nothing else really matters” besides a political campaign. There is no clearer “systemic” issue at the heart of the drive to remove politics from the day-to-day operations of county departments than this.
Which brings us to Hana Steel, who at the candidates’ forum couldn’t contain her glee at the notion of bringing in a professional county executive. “Don’t we have to start thinking differently to solve our problems?” she asked rhetorically, after noting that in her experience it currently takes a year to 18 months to get someone up to speed in a county position.
But what Steel didn’t say is that the last two years of her “26 years” as county Recycling Coordinator have been spent at home–a fact that raises innumerable questions over how county departments are currently run.
“I was placed on Administrative Leave with Pay by the Director of Environmental Management, Mr. Ginoza in July, 2014,” Steel said in a May 19 email to me (citing personnel issues, county officials have never commented to me on why they placed Steel on administrative leave). “No specific reason was given in his letter which only referenced ‘various… concerns.’ This occurred about 3 months after, upon the advice of a County Personnel Specialist, I filed an age discrimination complaint with the federal government Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC, against the County. I am happy to report that The County has recently taken steps to resolve this issue. As a civil servant of 26 years I have much more to contribute to the betterment of our community either as the elected Council Member for Na wai eha, or returning to active civil service as Recycling Coordinator.”
Ok, let’s unpack this. Nearly two years ago, Steel’s bosses placed her on administrative leave. She says they gave her no specific reason–they just told her to stop coming into work. Since then, the county–and by extension, we, the taxpayers–continued to pay her, but without her having to work. This occurred just a few months after she filed an age discrimination complaint against the county with the EEOC–a complaint that is now apparently close to resolution.
Perhaps anticipating that I would have follow-up questions, Steel added this to the end of her email: “I communicated with my EEOC investigator and this is all I can say. County personnel issues are confidential and I must honor that confidentiality. EEOC charges have the potential of becoming court cases, so I can say no more.”
And now Steel is running for office, but as of yet, refuses to explain to voters the circumstances surrounding the last two years of her employment at the county. The county’s treatment of Steel would seem to be some of the best evidence out there that a professional manager is needed. Is it any wonder that she seemed so supportive of the idea?
Photo of Keith Regan courtesy Keith Regan campaign