Members of the Maui Police Commission were divided Wednesday over whether discussions and hiring of the next police chief should be held in public or behind closed doors.
The commission is expected to debate who to hire as the next police chief at a public hearing Oct. 1 after a week interviewing the five finalists for the top position at the Maui Police Department.
Some commissioners argued that the debate should take place in executive session, out of the public eye, because that’s been the practice in the past for Maui County and other commissions in the state. But the commission’s attorney said that, absent a very clear reason, going into closed session could violate the law.
“Just because you want to hold something in executive session doesn’t mean you can hold it in executive session,” Jennifer Oana, Maui County deputy corporation counsel, told the commissioners.
Public boards in Hawaii are not required to go into executive session for any reason, but the state’s Sunshine Law allows a board to close a meeting for certain reasons.
Those include personnel discussions, labor negotiations, attorney consultation, investigations of criminal misconduct, public safety matters, solicitation of private donations or deliberations over confidential information.
Oana told the commission that if discussions don’t touch on any of those topics, it should hold the debate in open session.
Commissioner Michael Redeker took a straw poll of commissioners and said most want to hold the discussion behind closed doors.
“Certainly if somebody is discussing a negative factor about a particular candidate, would you want that released in open session?” Redeker said.
“A negative comment doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a private matter,” Oana said. “People who are applying for the chief of police position are applying for a very important role that affects the public. This kind of situation is scrutinized more because we are choosing such an important position.”
A Hawaii Supreme Court opinion in 2019 generally outlawed the practice of boards and commissions closing meetings without explaining why. Instead, they must prove they are protecting a legitimate privacy interest and balance that against the public’s interest in knowing what’s happening.
The high court’s ruling stemmed from a lawsuit the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest filed against the Honolulu Police Commission after it held closed door meetings to discuss a $250,000 retirement deal for then-HPD Chief Louis Kealoha.
At the time Kealoha had been named a primary suspect in a federal investigation involving corruption and abuse of power in law enforcement. He has since been convicted and sent to prison.
The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, is still investigating whether the payout was legal and has named a principal negotiator of the deal, former corporation counsel Donna Leong, a target of its criminal probe.
Lower-level job candidates might have greater privacy protections, Oana said. But the public interest in the police chief candidates may outweigh their privacy interests.
Vice Chair Bobbie Patnode said she would nonetheless ask to close the public meeting when hiring of the new chief comes up on Oct. 1.
Oana advised commissioners to review Hawaii’s open meetings law to identify reasons for moving into a closed session.
Commission Chairman Frank De Rego said he would prefer that the debates over the five finalists be held in open session.
“I think we’re going to need to be able to stand behind our discussions and the reasons that we give for hiring one candidate over another, or whether or not we need to go back to the drawing board completely,” De Rego said.
De Rego asked Oana to issue a written opinion to the commissioners.
Commissioner Stacey Moniz said she understands that some conversations might be uncomfortable, but that meetings should be open.
“The community has called for transparency,” she said. “And this is part of being transparent.”
The five candidates for police chief are: Everett Ferreira, Lawrence Hudson, John Jakubczak, John Pelletier and Victor Ramos.
Ramos and Jakubczak are MPD assistant chiefs, and Ferreira is an MPD captain. Hudson is a retired assistant police chief, and Pelletier is a Las Vegas police captain.
The candidates will take a written exam on Sept. 27. A public hearing on the candidates is scheduled for Sept. 28.
The commissioners will interview the candidates in private on Sept. 29 and 30, and a final public hearing will be held Friday Oct. 1 to select the next police chief.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell