For two years in a row, bright lights were installed on a tree in Joe Lukela Beach Park in Hawaii Kai during the holiday season.

In 2016, they were a surprise, installed without permission from the city. They reappeared in late 2017, this time after getting approval from the city for a special, temporary, one-of-a-kind “shade tree permit.”

The permit is unusual enough that even staff at the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation were wondering what was going on.

“Inquiring minds want to know,” one parks’ staffer asked in a November email. “What is a shade tree permit?”

The question went unanswered.

The special permit, and the convoluted and politically charged process that led to its approval, have sparked controversy both in the community and within the city administration. Recently released emails now show some of the story behind that debate.

Some community leaders and activists have complained the tree lights proposal bypassed normal procedures by sidestepping the routine review and discussion of such initiatives by the neighborhood board and other interested groups and individuals, while sunshine law procedures were bent, if not broken, in the rush to move it through the City Council.

Honolulu businessman Mike Miske gave the city a $40,000 gift to turn this tree in a Hawaii Kai park into a memorial for his dead son and other people whose ashes rest in Maunalua Bay.

Ian Lind/Civil Beat

The background of the controversy was described in an earlier Civil Beat column (“Why A Tree In Hawaii Kai Is Raising Questions Of Favoritism”).

The recent holiday season’s lights were a gift to the city from Honolulu businessman Mike Miske, who spent much of the last year doggedly pursuing permission to light the tree after proceeding surreptitiously the previous year.

Miske is a partner in Makana Pacific Development and has been involved in several other businesses. He was also part-owner of the M Nightclub, which closed in November 2016 following news accounts of a string of assaults on patrons by nightclub staff in which Miske was alleged to have participated.

Miske insists these are not holiday lights. He originally said the lighted tree was a memorial for his son, Caleb Miske-Lee, who died in March 2016 of injuries suffered in an automobile accident several months before. In testimony before the City Council’s parks committee last year, the elder Miske said the lights are in memory of all the people whose remains have been scattered in the waters of Maunalua Bay.

Under political pressure, and despite continuing objections to Miske’s plan, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, issued a temporary permit allowing him to string lights on the tree and light them for the period from Nov. 20 until Jan. 2. That period exceeded the normal one-month limit on special permits, parks department records show, but was allowed in order to avoid having to take them down just days before Christmas.

An official statement issued by the department described the permit as “a pilot program for the lighting of the tree during the holiday period.”

With issuance of the temporary permit, it seemed that the drama was over.

Instead, Miske and parks officials were soon at odds again behind the scenes, according to a series of internal emails obtained from the department in response to a formal public records request under the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act.

The emails show Miske refused to comply with the terms and conditions of the temporary permit, insisting that he would not remove the lights when the permit expired and threatening to retaliate if he did not get his way, while parks officials, unsure how to respond, finally turned to the mayor’s office for advice on how to handle the controversial situation.

For his part, Miske also wants to be involved in further discussions with the city, including with the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood and the City Council, according to his spokesman, Adrian Kamalii.

“This has been an extremely emotional issue for this family,” Kamalii said Thursday. “Honoring their son during the holidays has been key to dealing with such a sudden and tragic loss. Mike and his ohana soon learned how much their actions meant to others whose ohana is scattered in Maunalua Bay.
“Has the process been trying? Absolutely. Were some processes slow? Perhaps. What father who has experienced loss would act any different?”

The Games Begin

The special permit to allow Miske’s tree lights was authorized by Resolution 17-278, adopted by the city council on Nov. 1.

The resolution authorized the city to accept a “gift” valued at $40,000 from Miske and one of his companies, Makana Pacific Development. The gift was to include installation of the lights on the tree along the ocean at the beach park, along with electrical work necessary to run power from a nearby restroom to a spot adjacent to the tree.

The parks department devised the special “shade tree permit” in order to process Miske’s gift. The permit was drafted, but Miske initially declined to sign off on it, and at one point signed only after altering the permit to extend the life of the permit, the emails show.

The first problem was that Miske decided he would not proceed to install a new electrical line to the area. Instead, he asked to revert to an earlier design, which called for solar panels to be installed on a portable trellis near the tree. It seems like a minor change, but it presented awkward legal and bureaucratic hurdles.

Since the permit was authorized by the gift resolution passed by the council, and the gift resolution specified that it included the new electrical line, Miske was told that he would have to file a new gift declaration describing the solar panels, and then wait until that was considered and passed, which could take weeks or months. And without a valid permit, the lights — which had already been put in place — might have to be taken down pending approval of the updated power plan.

Miske hadn’t waited for the permit to be finalized. Instead, he had the lights installed, and was powering them with “a portable power source.” In plain language, a van was parked in front of the tree and batteries were used to run the lights.

“This has been an extremely emotional issue for this family.” — Miske family spokesman Adrian Kamalii

In a Nov. 16 email to Stan Oka, administrator of the Urban Forestry program, Miske said the lights were already up, had involved a lot of hard work, and he was not going to take them down “just to put it up again once power source is approved.” At the time, it appears the permit had still not been finalized. It seemed to create a standoff.

Faced with a political impasse, Oka was then told “not to take any further action” because Michele Nekota, the parks director, intended “to seek guidance from Admin.”

Apparently on advice from the mayor’s office, the parks department relented, saying Miske could go ahead and light the tree while the new gift proposal was pending, but would have to comply with the Jan. 2 end date.

It was just the first of several tense exchanges between department officials and Miske.

How to power thousands of tiny lights on this tree at Joe Lukela Beach Park stirred an already simmering controversy in Hawaii Kai.

Ian Lind/Civil Beat

The Department of Parks and Recreation issued a temporary “shade tree permit” dated Nov. 16 to allow installation of the lights. Despite requests from Miske for an extension, the permit expired on Jan. 2.

The next day, Miske responded by email to executive assistant Dori Amano-Misui, saying he had no intention of taking the lights down after Jan. 2.

“If you folks need to impose fines after 1/2/18 to satisfy any rules, I’d be wiling to pay them … with that said the lights will be left on up beyond 1/2/18.”

Miske went on to blast parks officials for dragging their feet.

“I’ve spend thousands of wasted dollars on submittals only for you folks to come back harder obstacles to begin with. We postponed our bill on two occasions with the agreement we could get this worked out and it still has not.”

“Bottom line is the lights are not coming down on 1/2/18 or after,” Miske wrote.

What Miske called “our bill” was a reference to Bill 40 (17), introduced by Honolulu City Council Member Trevor Ozawa. It would have created an “Adopt a tree” program applicable to all city trees, and it was wielded as a political weapon.

Uncle Buzzy Will Cut It Down

Oka, the urban forestry administrator, emailed the parks director and her executive assistant again a week later, on Nov. 22, about a telephone call from Miske the previous night.

“I think that he wants to get the donation passed by the council and keep the lights on the tree all the time,” Oka wrote. “He (Miske) mentioned that if he can’t get that, that Uncle Buzzy will cut it down.”

“I told him that it doesn’t make sense to cut it down and I wouldn’t want to see anyone get in trouble for this,” Oka reported.

“Uncle Buzzy” is a reference to Willian “Buzzy” Hong, the politically influential former executive director of the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council, who has backed Miske’s proposal from the beginning.

The same day as Oka reported the threat to have the tree cut down if Miske couldn’t get his way, a separate email exchange among parks staff disclosed the tree had already been pruned without authorization. This apparently happened although the permit included a provision explicitly providing that the  tree branches “are not to be pruned without prior permission” from the department.

Two days later, on Nov. 24, Miske sent another email to the department saying he was not going to sign the permit.

“You folks can start due process immediately in having the lights shut down, turned off, or whatever you folks prefer to do and when that happens, I’ll put them back, again and again,” Miske wrote.

Miske also threatened to resurrect Bill 40, which he previously referred to as “our bill.”

“I’ll move forward with bill 40 so we’re clear the lights can stay on at night through-out the year,” he wrote.

A few minutes later, Miske sent a followup email: “And if we are successful in passing bill 40 I’ll be sure to allocate appropriate funds and place my best marketing efforts forward in notifying everyone on Facebook and Other social media platforms … so they can also apply for similar projects.”

‘Our Bill’ Becomes A Weapon

Bill 40 was introduced in March 2017 after the parks department initially declined to authorize Miske’s tree lighting. Ozawa is vice-chair of the council’s Committee on Parks, Community & Customer Services.

Bill 40 would have established an “Adopt a tree” program allowing, among other things, for private individuals to place decorations or lights on any of the 200,000 trees managed by the parks department, including street trees or trees in any city park.

The bill put the parks department between a rock and a hard place. Ozawa seemed to be flexing his political muscles by offering the department a choice — accede to Miske’s request and authorize the Hawaii Kai tree lights despite the department’s continued opposition, or else face the possibility of Bill 40 passing and creating a far larger set of managerial problems.

Ozawa’s political message was received, loud and clear, and a political workaround was created by terming Miske’s tree lights a gift to the city.

But as the permit negotiations broke down, Miske let it be known that Bill 40 could still be revived and used as leverage.

Then on Nov. 27, Civil Beat published its column calling attention to the tree controversy, and the city went into lockdown mode.

“You folks can start due process immediately in having the lights shut down, turned off, or whatever you folks prefer to do and when that happens, I’ll put them back, again and again.” — Mike Miske

Within hours, Director Nekota sent an email advising staff to “make sure to run the responses through the Mayor’s office because this is a controversial issue.”

The mayor’s chief of staff had already been added to the email distribution list by this time, and Nekota also announced she would be meeting shortly with Deputy Managing Director Georgette Deemer “so I can get consistent talking points for this situation.”

Once the offices of the mayor and managing director became involved, the internal emails discussion ceased. At least no further emails or other documents about the issue were disclosed in response to my records request, which the city said had been granted in full.

So where does the matter stand now? The permit expired back on Jan. 2, and has not been extended. No new gift declaration for the solar panels has been filed with the city. The tree is still wrapped with lights, although they are now unpermitted, and are no longer being powered at night. The city never got the promised benefit of electricity delivered to the park. And there’s been no indication of how the city thinks this “pilot project” has gone.

I don’t know whether the donor of the lights, Mr. Miske, has gotten special treatment amounting to favoritism. But I’m pretty sure that if I were applying for a city permit, openly refused to comply with its terms and conditions, and then threatened to destroy city property if I didn’t get my way, I would find myself in deep kimchi, as they say.

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About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for 15 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.