One of the last actions Ernie Martin took as Honolulu City Council chairman last year was to recommend a permit approval for a development that had been plagued by permit violations and community complaints.
By the time the permit was reviewed and approved over three weeks in November, Martin had accepted $9,450 in congressional campaign contributions from developers associated with the Hanapohaku LLC project and their family members. Immediately upon leaving office, he got a job at the law firm that represents Hanapohaku.
Opponents of the development are crying foul over what they believe to be a conflict of interest.
“It stinks. It really stinks,” said Denise Antolini, president of Malama Pupukea-Waimea, a local nonprofit focused on environmental stewardship. Hers is one of several groups suing Hanapohaku and the City and County of Honolulu to void the permit approved by the council.
“You’ve got the campaign contributions, the greased timeline, a very cursory look by the City Council at the impacts and then the chair of the City Council goes to work for the development’s law firm,” she said.
City officials are prohibited from engaging in job negotiations if they are overseeing a matter involving their potential employer, according to city ethics guidelines. It’s unclear whether the rule would apply to a council member approving a permit and that permit applicant’s legal representative. Ethics rules also require a one-year “cooling off” period of former city workers during which they cannot help private organizations with projects they worked on during their public service.
Martin and his law firm, Sullivan Meheula Lee, did not answer questions about the timing of his job offer or questions about whether he has been doing work related to Hanapohaku since he left office in January. In a statement, the firm said Martin’s hiring was unrelated to the firm’s representation of the development.
“Mr. Martin and this firm adhere to all ethical guidelines regarding the work that Mr. Martin can engage in for our firm’s clients, given his recent service with the City Council,” the firm said. “His hiring and employment is in no way inappropriate and any insinuation to the contrary is baseless and irresponsible.”
Martin’s support for Hanapohaku came amid controversy surrounding the project.
Hanapohaku operates on land that sits next to Foodland Pupukea across from Shark’s Cove, which is in a Marine Life Conservation District, a natural area protected by the state. The space, which the company purchased in 2014, is occupied by food trucks, including one that claims to serve “Hawaii’s Best Fish Tacos,” and other small businesses like snorkel rentals. Tourists drink out of coconuts and eat on benches under tiki umbrellas.
The owner envisions a commercial center that includes a restaurant, retail space, a pharmacy, a credit union, an urgent care center, an ocean and sporting goods business and a parking lot, according to planning records. There will also be space for up to six food trucks and an outdoor eating area. Several dozen residents testified in support of the project, but opponents said council ignored longstanding problems when it approved Hanapohaku’s special management area use permit.
The site has garnered over $200,000 in fines over the past several years, including for operating food trucks and doing grading and construction work without permits, according to the lawsuit Antolini and others filed in January. At one point, the Department of Planning and Permitting was fining the owners $500 a day.
In August 2017, the state Department of Health found the site’s tenants had “dumped grease, rancid oil, and wastewater” into a pit in the bushes where an inspector also spotted “human feces and toilet paper,” the lawsuit states.
DPP spokesman Curtis Lum did not respond to an interview request.
Hanapohaku owner Andrew Yani apologized to the community last summer for neglecting to obtain public input before opening a food truck destination.
“We would like to be good stewards of this land,” Yani told attendees of a North Shore Neighborhood Board meeting.
Joe Wilson, a filmmaker and member of the Save Sharks Cove Alliance, has lost faith in the company.
“They’re disrupting the community and the environment,” said Wilson, whose group is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “If you’re to gauge what somebody is going to do based on their past behavior, there is no trust.”
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue the city should have required compliance with all laws before issuing a major permit. According to the complaint, the owners still had outstanding fines when the City Council approved the project. In two public meetings on the permit, council members did not discuss the history of violations.
“Why would you let them go to the next step without correcting all this stuff?” said Larry McElheny, a 40-year Pupukea resident and lawsuit plaintiff.
Filers of the lawsuit, including Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, want the court to invalidate the permit approved by the council. They believe the planned commercial center will attract levels of vehicle traffic that will make an already congested roadway unbearable and will be an environmental threat to the nearby marine habitat.
“We don’t want to turn this into Haleiwa or Honolulu,” said John Thielst, a lawsuit plaintiff who has lived in Pupukea for more than three decades. “We want it to remain a rural area.”
The lawsuit complainants say the city “fast-tracked” the permit approval process at Martin’s urging. They allege the process was biased and robbed them of due process.
Martin did not respond to requests for comment. Brett Turbin, an attorney at Sullivan Meheula Lee, which represents Hanapohaku in the lawsuit, declined to comment on behalf of the project developers.
For Antolini and other Hanapohaku opponents, Martin’s new position raises questions about the timing of his hiring and the nature of his work.
Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, said it may be worth a look by the Honolulu Ethics Commission.
“If this law firm was representing the developer and also gave him an offer of employment, it does seem questionable,” she said.
Ethics Commission Director Jan Yamane did not respond to requests for comment.
If Martin negotiated his employment with the Sullivan Meheula Lee firm while he was overseeing the approval of a permit for the firm’s client, that could be an ethics violation, according to city ethics guidelines.
“City personnel should not participate in any review or decision-making process involving a potential employer with which the officer or employee intends to or has discussed the terms of future employment,” former Ethics Commission Chairman Robin David Liu wrote in a 2004 memo.
Martin started work at Sullivan Meheula Lee within weeks of voting to approve Hanapohaku’s permit on Nov. 14. Martin’s name appeared on the firm’s website sometime between Dec. 8 and Jan. 9, according to the Internet Archive, a service that acts as a sporadic time capsule for websites. Martin left office on Jan. 2.
Honolulu ethics rules require a “cooling off” period for outgoing employees, including council members. For one year after leaving public service, city workers are prohibited from working on matters they participated in as city officials, according to the city ethics code. Former employees can work for companies that deal with city matters if they don’t touch the same projects they managed during their city employment, city ethics guidelines state.
Sullivan Meheula Lee did not say whether Martin has worked on any Hanapohaku matters since joining the firm. Civil Beat filed public records requests with the city, so far unanswered, to obtain Martin’s email correspondence with the law firm and Hanapohaku throughout 2018 as well as correspondence with the Department of Planning and Permitting since he left office.
“We would like to see a longer cooling off period between somebody serving in public office and going directly into any type of private practice where it can be presumed to be a conflict of interest,” Ma said.
Martin wasn’t the only council member to receive campaign dollars from Hanapohaku developers, associates and their family members. He received “the lion’s share,” Antolini said, but every council member except for Ann Kobayashi got at least $500 in 2017 and 2018, campaign finance records show.
“It’s not illegal to give campaign contributions,” said Antolini, who is an associate dean at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii. “But how did that impact their behavior?”
The resolution approving Hanapohaku’s permit advanced unanimously in the zoning and housing committee and was approved unanimously in a full council meeting.
Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, the chair of the zoning and housing committee, said she supported the project because “it’s what the community wanted.” The resolution approving the permit received more positive than negative testimony in person and in written form.
Pine, who grew up on the North Shore, said she was concerned about the project at first, but she was relieved to see the project size was only a fraction of what the law allows. She took issue with residents opposing the project who she says “haven’t lived there very long” and who had their chance at council meetings to voice their opposition.
“That’s the time to make your case,” she said. “Not through lawsuits.”
Antolini, who testified during a council committee meeting, said community members will continue to fight to protect the area.
“The stakes are really high,” Antolini said. “It may seem like a small piece of property, but it’s in such a sensitive location.”
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