PUNA, Hawaii Island — When members of the Fern Forest Community Association held their annual meeting this month, someone was clearly expecting trouble:
• Uniformed security guards and off-duty police were watching as over 50 residents of the subdivision in rural Upper Puna arrived at the meeting.
• Displayed on the sign-in table was a pre-printed stack of trespassing notices.
• A sign on the wall of the Quonset-style meeting hall announced that no video or audio recording was allowed.
• In his opening remarks, the outgoing president of the association’s board of directors, Ken Gryde, announced that questions would not be taken from the floor and noted that if an association member disrupted the meeting, a sequence of three warning signs would be held up: If the third sign was raised, that member would face trespassing charges.
Melissa Fletcher immediately rose from the audience.
“Point of Inquiry,” she said. “Is this the annual members’ meeting?”
The first warning sign went up. Fletcher repeated her question. The second sign went up. Fletcher refused to sit down, and a guard approached her. But Gryde hesitated, then said he would allow one question.
“Is this the annual members’ meeting?” Fletcher asked again.
“Yes,” Gryde replied.
That was an important moment, Fletcher recalled afterward, because, “You get to ask questions at an annual meeting.”
“Point of inquiry,” she began again.
When Gryde told her she’d had her question, his assertion was met by protests from other members.
“This meeting is adjourned,” Gryde declared. He and the other board members walked out.
But most members kept their seats, even when security guards began removing tables and attempting to remove benches and chairs where those present, including this reporter, were still seated.
Other guards pulled the meeting hall’s gates partially shut, while Fletcher, maintaining that the meeting hadn’t been legally closed without a motion and vote to adjourn, moved that another resident, Kristen McCardel, be elected chair pro tem to lead the rest of the meeting.
The motion passed overwhelmingly, followed by more motions, including one to nullify the election of board members that had been run by the board (which had only allowed three names, chosen by the board, on the ballot for the three open positions).
The participants then elected three candidates that the board had refused to allow on the ballot, claiming that those candidates hadn’t gathered a requisite 20 signatures of Fern Forest Community Association members in good standing (a charge the candidates hotly contested).
Meanwhile, someone called the police. But the officer who answered the call told the dissident members, “There is nothing wrong with what you guys are doing.” He simply asked if they would be done by the time when the hired security guards were scheduled to leave.
Fern Forest, apparently, is about to rejoin a growing list of Big Island subdivisions with two competing boards running their community associations, which have important responsibilities such as maintaining roads in substandard neighborhoods. At one point, Fern Forest had four rival community organizations.
“The only thing this outlaw group will do is cost the FFCA thousands of dollars in legal fees.” — Fern Forest Community Association website
On the same day, Dec. 2, West Hawaii Today announced that the assets of the road maintenance corporation at Hawaii Ranchos, in Kau, had been frozen in a dispute similar to the one at Fern Forest.
At Orchidland in Puna, one group claiming to be the board is fighting both another group with the same claim and a petition by residents to put the association’s assets into a court-appointed receivership.
Residents in several other subdivisions, including Hawaiian Shores and lava-ravaged Leilani Estates, have also reported major conflicts with their association boards. It’s a problem that’s been happening since at least the 1980s, when a similar battle between rival boards in Hawaiian Paradise Park had to be resolved in court.
After the Fern Forest meeting, Gryde would only tell Civil Beat that his board had followed “all the bylaws” of the community association.
But the board’s website went to much greater length in a Dec. 3 post, saying the board had been forced to shut down the meeting “when a group of disaffected residents created havoc at the beginning of the meeting.”
The post called the residents who stayed at the meeting “lawless rabble,” and said, “The only thing this outlaw group will do is cost the FFCA thousands of dollars in legal fees….The board cautions you to beware of ‘yet another’ alternative board composed of rabble and thieves who seek to misappropriate community funds.”
Members of the “rabble” insisted they’ve followed all the bylaws — and relevant state law, and “Roberts Rules of Order,” which the association’s bylaws say should be followed when the bylaws themselves don’t provide guidance.
The three candidates elected at the annual meeting all say they’d sent in petitions with more than enough qualifying signatures and that they’d asked all those who signed if they had paid their association dues. The dissidents claim that the old board actually had committed numerous violations of state law, community association bylaws and Robert’s Rules in the way it conducted elections, meetings and the corporation’s business.
“It’s not about disliking the people of the board and it’s not about disliking characters,” said McCardel. “We want it to be run properly. That’s all we’re trying to accomplish.”
Some also have questions about the road maintenance.
One resident elected after the old board walked out is Bill Gray, who is also a county building inspector who worked on highway, bridge and water projects in Las Vegas before moving here. Speaking as a private citizen, Gray observed that “The roads in the subdivision have deteriorated in the past three years.”
While the old board claims to have met county specifications for aggregate on gravel roads, Gray said, the county actually had no such specifications. Federal guidelines for such roads, he noted, stated that “100 percent of the material should pass through a 1-inch screen or sieve; 80 percent should pass through a quarter-inch sieve.”
But the mix he’d observed being used in Fern Forest roads, he said, contained much larger rocks, which could damage the road surface, damage vehicles, and roll on the road surface like “marbles or ball bearings,” creating a hazard for motorcyclists.
“They’re putting this rocky junk out there,” he said, “and it’s not right.”
“Every member of the board should have to take a day class on parliamentary procedure.” — Melissa Fletcher
The roots of the community associations’ problems may extend back to the 1960s and ’70s, when county and state officials allowed a series of subdivisions with substandard roads to be created on the Big Islands. The maintenance for those roads was left up to the community associations: private corporations run by unpaid boards elected from among the lot owners themselves. With a few exceptions such as Gray, they’re not engineers or experienced CEOs, and may never have run a large meeting before.
“We have to make sure that when elected, every member of the board should have to take a day class on parliamentary procedure,” said Fletcher.
McCardel noted another problem: “There doesn’t appear to be an agency or entity that is tasked with oversight of these organizations or with enforcing the statutes and rules that govern them.”
During the 2018 legislative session, Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, D-Puna, introduced House Bill 2570 to address that problem by making counties responsible for establishing “rules and procedures” for such subdivision community associations, conducting audits of them, establishing an “oversight agency” for them, and even, if a majority of subdivision lot owners approved, to take over fee collection and road maintenance itself.
The bill failed to cross over to the Senate. San Buenaventura hopes to try again next year.
Meanwhile, at least three Fern Forest meeting participants have received letters from Gryde, saying they were banned from all FFCA meetings and from the lot where the meeting hall sits.
“You and your cohorts shouted interruptions, refused to accept rulings from the chair, and voiced intimidating threats,” the letter said.
Fletcher said Gryde’s term was supposed to expire the night of the meeting, so he had no right to write anything on FFCA stationery.
One of those receiving a letter was Gypsy Young, who’d said she’d never been to an FFCA meeting before that day.
“I really don’t think I said anything,” she said. “I don’t appreciate when people say things about me that aren’t true.”
A story that takes fives minutes to read often takes days to report.
Quality journalism takes time and resources to produce, but with support from readers like you, Civil Beat can investigate issues and publish stories that are otherwise difficult to fund.
Become a donor and help support Civil Beat’s next investigation.