A mysterious new super PAC is attempting to shift the balance of power on the Maui County Council.
The new political action committee, Hui O Maui Citizens For Change, is spending more than $110,000 on web, print and direct mail advertisements supporting opponents of a progressive bloc of council members who came to power following the 2018 election.
Who or what is behind the new group is largely unknown. A nonprofit called Hui O Maui is listed as the PAC’s primary funder, but little is known about that organization as well.
How much money the PAC has on hand, and the level of funding provided by the nonprofit, could come to light Thursday, when candidates and other political committees are required by law to submit reports to the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission on expenses and contributions between Aug. 9 and Saturday.
Representatives with the nonprofit and the PAC did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
Super PACs, known as independent expenditure committees in Hawaii, are allowed to accept unlimited amounts of donations from individuals or companies. They are also allowed to spend unlimited sums on advertisements supporting or opposing candidates.
The PACs aren’t allowed to coordinate with candidate campaigns though, and must disclose their top funders in advertisements. But such disclosures, read at the end of or printed below an ad, don’t always give the public a clear picture of who is paying to influence their vote.
The Hui PAC is running ads for Tom Cook, Rick Nava, Stacy Crivello, Claire Kamalu Carroll, Alberta Dejetley, Tasha Kama, Alice Lee, Yuki Lei Sugimura and Mike Molina.
The PAC’s ads were expected to start running Monday and go through the Nov. 3 election on Maui Now and radio stations. Mailers are set to go out Friday.
Another Maui PAC, Maui’s Green Future Project, is spending about $3,000 on Facebook ads supporting the incumbent Maui County Council progressives including Kelly King, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Shane Sinenci and Tamara Paltin, as well as a slate of newcomers and Molina.
That group is backed by anti-GMO activists who started propelling candidates to the council in 2014.
Hui O Maui Citizens For Change filed as an independent expenditure committee on Sept. 11. The group’s chairperson, Grant David Gillham, did not return several phone messages.
Hui O Maui, the group listed as the super PAC’s primary funder, was incorporated as a nonprofit in February by San Francisco attorney Peter Bagatelos, according to information on file with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
The purpose of the nonprofit, according to its articles of incorporation, is: “to conduct research, to perform studies, to collect data, to provide public discussion forums, to disseminate information, materials, data and other information, and to educate the public and policy makers regarding topical community issues, proposals, litigation, legislation, and matters that affect and impact the Maui community, all for the long-term benefit of the citizens and especially the keiki of Maui.”
Asked why the organization supported the Maui candidates and what issues it is advocating for, Bagatelos said he couldn’t answer that as he was only the attorney who helped to set up the organization.
“I’m just the attorney,” he said. “The decision-making is not in my purview.”
Members of the nonprofit, who are not named in the business or PAC filings, did not respond to a request for an interview sent through a representative, who also declined to say who is involved in the organization.
Both Gillham and Bagatelos have histories as political agents in Hawaii and on the mainland.
Gillham is a Nevada consultant who was paid about $30,000 for media consulting services between 2016 and 2018 by the One Ohana Political Action Committee, which was funded by a group of timeshare associations.
Bagatelos was chair of one of the timeshare groups that helped fund the One Ohana PAC, which reported $500,000 on hand as of Aug 8.
Bagatelos was a plaintiff in a 2013 lawsuit brought by the Ocean Resort Villas Vacation Owners Association and the Ocean Resort Villas North Vacation Owners Association against Maui County over its property tax rates for timeshares.
While working for the timeshare PAC, Gillham said in 2014 that timeshare owners, who pay higher tax rates than other properties, felt left out of the political process.
The case made it to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the county against the timeshares and sent the case back to a lower tax court, Maui News reported in June.
Politics on the Maui Council provide the backdrop for the PAC money battle.
While not divided on most issues, the Maui County Council tends to vote in predictable blocs.
Kelly King, the former council chair, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, the budget committee chair and council vice chair, Tamara Paltin, land use committee chair, and Shane Sinenci, chair of the Environmental, Agricultural, and Cultural Preservation Committee, make up the core group of progressives.
With the exception of King, all were first elected to the council in 2018.
Tasha Kama, also a freshman lawmaker in 2018, was once part of that group but later joined a group of conservative-leaning council members.
Riki Hokama, a longtime council member, and Yuki Lei Sugimura complete the more conservative-leaning bloc, which lost much of its influence after the 2018 election.
Alice Lee, the council chair, and Mike Molina are considered swing votes, with Lee often treading the middle ground. Some see Molina as part of the progressive bloc now as well. Both PACs are running ads supporting him.
The progressive bloc has been seen as getting in the way of affordable housing developments when they raise issues of project siting, the environment and community participation. Others see the conservatives as being too friendly to developers and too eager to push through new projects.
The progressive bloc has been bolstered by support from environmental groups and those opposed to GMO and pesticide use in the islands.
The bloc pushed for an end to the Maui injection well case that ultimately saw the U.S. Supreme Court rule in favor of environmental groups over the county in April. In September 2019, the council voted 5-4 in favor of settling out of court to bring a resolution to the case.
Molina joined the progressive bloc in supporting the settlement. Hokama, Kama, Lee and Sugimura cast “no” votes.
In May, the council approved new property tax rates for the fiscal year in a 7-2 vote. Hokama and Sugimura were the “no” votes. Sugimura as well as Maui Mayor Mike Victorino wanted lower property tax rates for hotels, Maui News reported. That idea was shot down.
Hokama and Sugimura also voted no on each of the seven charter amendments that were put forward by the progressive bloc.
Maui voters will decide whether council members and the mayor should have term limits as well as whether a new Department of Agriculture should be set up in the county. Kama also voted no on four of the charter amendment questions, including those for council term limits and the agriculture department.
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