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The newest in a series of major proposed changes to rules governing the sale of alcohol in Maui County has community members once again squaring off with liquor control regulators.
State law already allows restaurants to sell booze to go. But Maui County’s liquor law doesn’t clearly address whether it’s legal to allow restaurant-goers to bring home an unfinished bottle of wine ordered with dinner, for example.
In Hawaii, county liquor laws can be more rigid than state laws, but they cannot be more liberal.
Liquor Commission Chairman Nane Aluli said the intent of the rule change is to replicate state law by flatly spelling it out: Restaurants may serve liquor for off-premises consumption between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.
The commission has deferred decision-making until its June meeting after getting pushback from residents and groups like the Maui Coalition for Drug-Free Youth.
“Why would we want to create liquor stores out of restaurants?” said Katie Folio, a Kula resident who spoke against the proposal at the public hearing.
“We just feel like alcohol is already so readily available here,” Folio said. “We don’t want Maui to turn into Las Vegas.”
Take-away booze is only the latest in a string of controversial proposals from county liquor regulators since Glenn Mukai became Maui’s liquor control director in 2016.
Mukai has dawn ire from residents and liquor license holders alike after his department unveiled proposal after proposal to loosen the law by allowing alcohol home delivery or lifting a long-standing cap on the number of hostess bars.
The Liquor Commission gave Mukai above-average and satisfactory ratings in a review of his performance in fiscal year 2017. But a third-party audit of Maui’s Liquor Control Department in 2018 found the license and permit process to be inconsistent, inefficient and more onerous compared to other counties.
License holders complained that requirements change from year to year without notice and applications are sometimes ruled incomplete due to trivial errors in punctuation, the audit found.
The audit also revealed that many license holders perceived enforcement by the department as punitive and retaliatory and that the county’s liquor laws fail to focus on reducing alcohol-related risks, such as underage drinking and drunk driving.
Maui Councilwoman Yuki Lei Sugimura summed up the recent storm over proposed liquor law changes like this: “The current liquor department director and body are interpreting the same laws that you have in Honolulu and in all the other counties — but they are interpreting it with a twist that is putting the community in an uproar.”
The most dramatic rule change was a historic but short-lived move to make Maui the first county in the state to allow liquor sales around the clock. Enacted in March 2017, Maui’s contentious 24-hour liquor law had a run of four months.
Liquor commissioners rolled back the rule in July 2017 after fierce community criticism and a lawsuit questioned the change. Also repealed were rules rolled out simultaneously that allowed alcohol home delivery and broke open a cap on hostess bars.
There was more public concern when the Liquor Commission tightened requirements for one-time use permit applicants, including nonprofit organizations seeking a permit to serve alcohol at a fundraising event. The new rules required nonprofit leaders and volunteers to submit to fingerprinting and criminal background checks — stipulations mandated by no other liquor department in the state.
Aluli said some residents at the time felt like the commission enacted these changes without adequate public notice or scrutiny.
In 2017, Kihei resident Madge Schaefer sued the commission for Sunshine Law violations after she said its members made secretive rule changes without proper public notice. The case is currently on appeal before the Intermediate Court of Appeals.
“In regards to the pushback we got almost two years ago now, I think our interpretation on a county level was not necessarily what the public was supportive of,” Aluli said.
“The fact that we did not necessarily follow the process of informing the public, that’s where I think we dropped the ball. If we had been more clear and open and transparent, we would have perhaps gotten the kind of testimony from the public that would make the board much more responsive to what people really wanted.”
This time around, Aluli said the commission has altered its process to bring it in line with public meeting rules and better incorporate community members into the decision-making process.
“I think it’s good to hear the voice of the public and respond accordingly,” he said. “Transparency is a priority.”
Mukai declined to comment, and a county spokesman said Mayor Michael Victorino was unavailable to comment. Maui First Deputy Corporation Counsel Edward Kushi did not return a call for comment.
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