Lovers and supporters of the historic old Iao Theater got a real treat last week. At 6:30 p.m. on May 25, they got a chance to attend an actual public meeting in the Cameron Center Auditorium on the only-partially restored theater’s future. About 30 people decided that discussing the future of the 1928-vintage movie house and theater was a bit more important than seeing who would be the next American Idol.
What made this meeting so special was that until last week, all meetings on the Iao Theater—conducted by the high-sounding Iao Theater Restoration Initiatives Task Force—have been behind closed doors without public input or participation.
Moderated by consultants David Plettner and Karen Masaki of the Honolulu-based Cultural+Planning Group (C+PG)—hired a few weeks ago by the Task Force—the meeting was part of a “needs assessment” to find out what the public wanted to do with the theater. County Economic Development Coordinator Lynn Araki-Regan, who works with the Task Force, also attended.
The Iao still needs a couple million dollars to complete its restoration and install modern central air conditioning. The building originally had an elegant system of ducts that used no moving parts but routed cool tradewinds from the back of the building through the audience. But engineers had to block off a number of vents to stabilize the structure, which was then in danger of collapsing.
“I would not go in there for a meeting during the day,” one woman said of the need to put in AC. “I would have to put on too much deodorant.”
For the first half of the meeting, the ultimate point of all these “needs assessments” and “task forces” went unstated—that is, whether current management group Maui OnStage should get a long-term lease over the theater. Then someone said that Plettner and Masaki should recommend that Maui OnStage continue managing the theater.
Plettner quickly denied that his firm would recommend that any one firm or group run the theater. Instead, he said, it was up to the Iao Theater Restoration Initiatives Task Force and Mayor Alan Arakawa to answer that question.
This was a critical revelation—especially considering that the Task Force meetings have so far been secret.
“I don’t want to see a process behind closed doors anymore,” said Darla Palmer, Maui OnStage’s executive director. She added that she didn’t think the Task Force had “adequate representation of the arts.”
The Task Force’s policy of holding private meetings was clearly something of a revelation to many of the meeting participants.
“Who picked the Task Force members and why isn’t more of the community involved?” asked Wailuku resident Barbara Ann Keller, the Maui Drug Court Administrator who attended the meeting to ask for more children’s theater events at the Iao.
Formed in January by Arakawa, the nine-member Task Force includes representatives from the County Film Commission, Maui Arts and Cultural Center and Maui Chamber of Commerce as well as longtime Wailuku activists like Jocelyn Perreira of the Wailuku Main Street Association.
The sudden interest in the Task Force put Economic Development Coordinator Araki-Regan on the defensive. She said such meetings were perfectly legal since the Task Force was just an “advisory board.” In fact, she added, the county had even gotten an opinion from the state Office of Information Practices backing them up.
She said the Task Force wasn’t actually making any decisions on the theater, but was “just a group from the broader community” that would ultimately call for a Request For Proposals (RFP) concerning the theater’s future. She added that closed meetings were “cleaner” and that the county deals with RFPs “every day” without any public input at all.
“We don’t have to go through this [public meeting],” she said. “The Task Force requested this.”
The problem with this argument is simply that an RFP dealing with the Iao Theater is strikingly different from one dealing with sewer repair or stoplight construction. The Iao Theater succeeds or fails on community involvement, which means it just makes sense to involve members of the public with all decision-making concerning its future.
Instead, the Task Force has managed to insulate itself behind a wall of private consultants, forcing residents and theater-lovers to wonder just what’s been happening since January. Sure, it’s perfectly legal for the Task Force to do so, but it’s not very smart. MTW