By Don Gronning
Maui County Council Member Mike Molina won’t say who paid for the lawyer or appraiser who persuaded the Ethics Board to overturn the decision banning him from voting on a huge development near his land.
What did it cost and who paid for it? Those are the questions being asked after the Maui Board of Ethics reversed themselves and said council member Mike Molina could vote on a rezone for a controversial South Maui development, even though he owned an interest in land near there.
Molina’s attorney, Dennis Nakamura, and an Oahu land appraisal company, said the value of a 12.9 acre parcel Molina owns a part of would not be effected if the Makena Resort rezone is approved, even though the land is located about a mile from the proposed rezone.
A 48-page report prepared by the firm of John Child and Company of Honolulu concluded that the Molina property was landlocked, without utilities or easements and had such poor soil not even one animal could be grazed on it. Furthermore, part of the property was zoned conservation land, further limiting its use.
Nakamura argued that its value would not be effected either way because of a rezone. Two employees of John Child and Company, including CEO Karen Char, were present at the July 26 Board of Ethics meeting to support that conclusion and answer questions from the Board.
Just what such a report and personal appearances by appraisers cost Molina is the subject of much speculation. Molina himself is coy about the cost and who will pay it.
“I don’t know, I haven’t got the bill yet,” is his answer when asked what the attorney and report cost. “The family vacation is on hold, though.”
Will anyone else help pay? “Not as far as I know,” Molina says. Was any of the work done pro bono, or free? “Not that I know,” Molina says. Well, will the bill be in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars? “You have my answer,” Molina replies.
Reports such as the John Child report likely costs several thousand dollars, says one appraiser.
“I’d charge at least $5,000 for the report,” says R.J. Kirchner, owner of Paradise Appraisals of the Big Island. “I suspect because it is a big Oahu firm, they charge more.”
That’s just for the report. To get the people to attend the Board of Ethics meeting would cost more, says Kirchner. He says he charges $150 an hour for his time, including travel, and that he would want at least a half-day to prepare to testify.
Then there is the matter of attorney’s fees. Such legal work also does not come cheap.
Nakamura appeared personally before the board three times and prepared a 20-page memorandum, which was supported by about 100 pages of various exhibits, including the language for the advisory opinion he thought the board should give. Nakamura was the attorney for Wailea 670, another controversial, big-money development in South Maui, although he says he no longer represents them.
At the July 26 meeting, the Board of Ethics apparently wasn’t curious about who paid for the report, as nobody inquired about costs or who footed the bill.
“I’m surprised the board didn’t ask who paid for the report,” says Kirchner. “I would have.”
The Child report doesn’t include a dollar amount on what the land is worth and in response to board member Tamio Iwado’s question, Char said they did not place a value on the parcel.
Nakamura had answered a similar question from Iwado earlier in the meeting by saying they had the land appraised but that the value wasn’t the real issue. The real issue, he said, was whether the value is going to change as a result of the rezone.
After reading the Child report and listening to Nakamura, one could conclude the land is worthless. That’s not how Maui County sees it. According to the county property tax website www.mauipropertytax.com, the agricultural portion is valued at $359,100 and the conservation land is assessed at $151,200 for a total of more than half a million dollars.
In amended financial disclosure forms, Molina says he owns 10 percent and it is worth $51,490.
Molina’s actions throughout the controversial Makena rezone have been suspect. He did not reveal his interest in the land until after he had voted once in favor of the rezone, even though all elected officials are required to disclose all interest in real estate in Maui County on a sworn form filed with the County Clerk’s office.
Molina’s interest in the land only became public after he was asked about it on a call-in, cable television show.
The Makena Resort rezone is necessary in order to build a new hotel or time-share development, as well as more than 1,000 homes that could take place over the next 20 years. It is potentially a billion-dollar project, opponents say.
They say such a project should not be approved until infrastructure needs, such as roads and water, are resolved. Opponents say it is a big money project being pushed through by behind-the-scenes operators over the wishes of the community.
Supporters say the Japanese developer, Seibu., Inc, has been a good corporate citizen, that the project has been 20 years in planning, and that several changes have been made to address opponents’ concerns.
The community is divided on the issue. Developers such as Everett Dowling of Dowling, Inc. say it is exactly the kind of project that should be approved. Dowling is listed as one of Child’s clients in the report. The Maui Contractors Association, a trade association, also supports the project.
But Maui Tomorrow, a citizen’s organization concerned about the effect of unchecked growth on Maui, strongly opposes the Makena development, as do several other groups.
The matter became public after a caller to a local cable access television show asked Molina about it on the air. The show was hosted by Don Couch, who was then chair of the Board of Ethics.
Couch suggested Molina submit the matter to the Board to decide. Couch has since resigned from the board to run for a state senate seat as a Republican.
That resulted in Molina requesting an opinion from the Board of Ethics. He appeared before them Feb. 20, the day before the full Maui County Council was set to vote on the rezone.
He told the board he owned a 20 percent interest in the land and that he had forgotten to include it on his financial disclosure form. He said he considered it his right and obligation as an elected official to vote on controversial projects and that he did not want to recuse himself from this vote.
Board members present voted unanimously that there would be an appearance of a conflict of interest if he voted and advised him to recuse himself, which he did the next day. Without his vote, the project didn’t have enough support to pass and was returned to committee.
Molina, who had initially requested the opinion, didn’t like the answer and asked the Board of Ethics to reconsider. Eventually that led to the July 26 meeting and the 6-1 vote to allow Molina to vote on Makena. The chair doesn’t vote unless there is a tie. The only member voting against was Michael Inouye of Molokai, who also voted against it during the Feb. 20 meeting.
Inouye asked Molina why, if the land is so worthless, he didn’t just give up his “beneficiary rights.”
Molina replied that it was a family decision and Nakamura jumped in to say there was nobody who would take the land.
“If the value is so worthless, why insist on retaining interest?” Inouye said in a phone interview for this story. “Imagine ten years down the line. Zoning can change, and if it does, he will be in an unenviable position. I voted mainly for his protection. Why not have a clean slate so he can vote either way, and not have it come back to haunt him?”
Molina says opposition to him voting is politically motivated, pure and simple.
“It’s McCarthyism,” he says. “They’re out there to smear me.”
Molina will stand for re-election this year. His opponent, Lance Holter, seems reluctant to make an issue out of the ethics controversy, but says ethics does matter.
“Ethics are an issue,” he says. “But the voters are akami. The voters will judge.”
Former Maui Tomorrow president Mark Sheehan is less diplomatic. Sheehan, a realtor, wrote a two-paragraph statement for the Feb. 20 meeting in which he said property values in the area would go up if the rezone was approved.
That letter came under fire at the July 26 meeting. Nakamura and board member and fellow realtor Ed Bello said it was misleading and they questioned the motives behind it.
Contacted by phone for a reaction to this story, Sheehan quoted a letter in the editor to one of the local newspapers. “It’s the best ethics money can buy,” he said.
He also questions just who did finance the report and legal fees. He doesn’t think Molina alone paid for the attorney and report.
“I don’t think on his $43,000 salary he can pay for these things,” says Sheehan.
Since Molina won’t answer definitively if he is footing the whole bill, voters are left to wonder. He won’t even answer if there is anything he would do different, if he had it to do over again. He gives a typical Molina-esque reply.
“I can’t answer that,” he says. “I’ll have to get back to you.”