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Council Confirmations: IT’S NOT OVER ‘TIL IT’S OVER

(L-R) Tasha Kama (Kahului), Patrick Wong. PC: County of Maui

What a long strange trip it’s been.

The Maui County Council took the final vote on the Mayor’s Victorino’s 11 nominees to head county departments on Friday, February 22nd. The surprise finish saw Dave Goode, longtime head of Public Works ousted and two-term Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong confirmed once again.

The vote proved that it’s not over until it’s over, as both of those outcomes overturned prior votes in committee where the nine member body vetted the proposed leadership in extensive sessions, heard exhaustive testimony followed by protracted deliberations. Yet in the end it was far from a done deal and there were moments of drama in the final vote.

Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong (who earlier was disapproved in committee by a vote of 5-4); reversed that tally in this morning’s meeting when council member Tasha Kama changed sides and voted to confirm him.

Following the meeting, Kama said that it was her personal face-to-face interview with Wong, in which she said he more clearly explained to her the duties and function of his job, that proved persuasive.

She added that the testimony of Wong’s children on his behalf also helped to change her mind. In an interview earlier in the week, Kama said that the week between the last council session on Feb. 15 and today’s vote had allowed her to hear additional voices and reflect on her decision. Voting with Kama to confirm were members Hokama, Lee, Molina and Sugimura.

Wong served a total of eight years as corporation counsel during the Arakawa administration and was the focus of voluminous testimony both for and against. Today’s vote means he will continue as the county’s chief legal advisor for the next four years.

Drawing gasps from the crowd were the outcome of the nomination of David Goode to head Public Works. Goode had been recommended for approval in committee (5-3), but no sooner was the motion to approve on the floor tha member Rawlins-Fernandez moved to amend it to a motion to disapprove. That action that was eventually seconded by member Kama. The motion to disapprove was adopted and Goode’s fortunes went downhill from there.The six members voting to disapprove were Hokama, Kama, Paltin, Sinenci, Fernandez-Rawlins and King. Voting to retain him were Lee, Molina and Sugimura.

Explaining their votes various council members commented on the veteran director’s perceived shortcomings. Their objections were most succinctly summarized by member Paltin, who did not question his ability or intelligence but said as she listened to him she wondered, “What’s he leaving out?” Sinenci who supported Goode with reservations in committee changed his vote and supported disapproval saying he had heard from his constituents who had urged him to vote against him. Hokama who had been absent when Goode’s nomination was heard in committee also voted against him.

Asked for comment Hokama first declined to give any reason and later added obliquely, “I voted ‘No,’ that speaks for itself… I’ve dealt with this man for 20 years.”

Goode drew fire on a wide range of topics but most repeatedly for issuing of permits that allowed sand mining to go forward in an area containing Hawaiian burial sites (Iwi Kupuna) just moments before a sand mining moratorium was scheduled to go into effect.

JD Kim, long time prosecuting attorney, also failed to win approval in committee.That action was reiterated by the final vote 5 to 4 voting to disapprove. Voting in favor of disapproval were Paltin, Sinenci, Kama, Rawlins- Fernadez and King. Voting against disapproval were Lee, Hokama, Sugimura and Molina.

The vote on Kim did not proceed without some parliamentary wrangling: member Molina first moved to go into executive session saying he had received calls that likened the prior committee proceedings to an “inquisition” motivated by “politics and prejudice,” creating a “dark cloud.” To which Chair King responded that “the cloud was created by the prosecuting attorney.” The motion to go into executive session was defeated.

Several factors seemed to weigh against Kim: among them were insensitivity to the concerns of the families of missing persons, particularly related to the disappearance and murder of Carly “Charli” Scott. There was also substantial testimony related to the handling of cases of domestic abuse. Several on the council felt the testimony by Kim’s staff hurt rather than helped him. Paltin said she found the testimony “disrespectful and bullying” and wondered “if that’s how they appeared to the council, how did they treat the victims?”

Also failing to win confirmation was Will Spence, the nominee to head the Department of Housing and Human Concerns. Spence who had been on the losing end of the vote in committee went down by an even greater majority in the final action. In the end the vote was 8-1 with only Sugimura supporting him. Among the factors weighing against Spence were his lack of actual experience in housing, although he had previously served two terms as head of Planning. Member Molina hoped that the mayor could find a place for Spence in some other part of his administration.

The votes for Director of Water and Director of Planning were close but favorable to the nominee.

Michele McLean was confirmed to head Planning 5-4 with Hokama, Sugimura, Lee, Molina, and Kama voting in her favor. McLean had survived almost five hours of questioning in committee including an executive session. Objections to her tenure included approval of a non-permitted zip line activity and what some felt was an ambivalent attitude toward the community planning process. Chairman King summed up her objections as “a trust issue.”

Likewise Jeff Pearson, the nominee for Water made it through, but just barely Even though his nomination had been approved 7-2 in committee, when it came to the final vote it was 5-4 in favor with Sugimura, Hokama, Lee, Molina, and Kama voting in favor of approval and King, Paltin, Rawlins-Fernandez and Sinenci voting against.

All the other nominees were approved unanimously. They are: Karla Peters (Parks); Scott Teruya (Finance); Sandy Baz (Managing Director); Marc Takamori (Transportation); and Mike Miyamoto (Environmental Management). Finance Director Teruya came in for praise from unlikely convert with member Paltin commenting, “He truly won me over.”

As the result of a recent charter amendment, this was the first year that the council had the power to approve or disapprove all the mayor’s nominees to head departments The process proved more time consuming, contentious and ambiguous than most had anticipated. Many of the council members had questions about the selection process itself, especially on those selected that were mainly carryovers from prior years. Members who liked Victorino’s choices called for continuity and institutional knowledge. Those who didn’t said they’d run on change and they were here to see that change occured. As a group they were also critical of the limited number of applicants and that there was no real search conducted for possible nominees outside those who already had jobs with the county who actively threw their name in the hat.

Though some perceived the council as a majority bloc of five: (King, Paltin, Rawlins-Fernandez, Kama, and Sinenci) vs a minority group of four (Molina, Lee, Sugimura, and Hokama) in reality the votes did not always go as expected and when the roll was called those alliances were not firm. Member Kama was the swing vote in multiple instances;  Molina departed from his group in the vote on Spence, Sinenci changed his votes several times, and Hokama voted thumbs down on Goode, and Lee voted against Spence.

In the end Sugimura was the only vote that Victorino could reliably count on.

As a side note it was interesting to observe the council’s embrace of the mayor’s emphasis on “customer service”, as a thread that ran through many of the discussions, though perhaps not always in the context that he had in mind.

At one point or another, virtually all of the council members said, that no matter how they voted, they would do their best to support and work with those who were ultimately approved.

The vacancies in Public Works, Prosecuting Attorney and Housing and Human Concerns become effective once this morning’s vote is certified by the clerk. The mayor has 60 days to submit new nominations to the council.

DISAPPROVED: Will Spence 8-1 (Housing & Human Concerns); JD Kim 5-4 (Prosecuting Attorney); Dave Goode 6-3 (Public Works)

APPROVED by narrow margin: Patrick Wong 5-4 (Corporation Council); Jeff Pearson 5-4 (Water); Michele McLean 5-4 (Planning);

APPROVED UNANIMOUSLY: Sandy Baz (Managing Director); Karla Peters (Parks); Scott Teruya (Finance); Marc Takamori (Transportation); Mike Miyamoto (Environmental Management).

Video of the final proceedings below:

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About Susan Halas

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Susan Halas is a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch. She has followed Hawaii politics since 1976 when she moved to the Valley Isle. She was formerly a staff writer for the Maui News as well as other local print and digital publications.

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