An audit of Maui County’s zoning division has turned up a slew of problems ranging from a backlog of building permits, staff churn and low morale, and an overall lack of confidence by employees in their boss, planning director Michele McLean.

The report resulted from a resolution introduced by Maui County Council member Mike Molina last year. At the time Molina said he was fielding numerous public complaints regarding lack of staff response, inconsistency and delays in processing permits, and an absence of customer service.

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In an interview on Friday, Molina said the audit has shone a spotlight on some longstanding problems and he’s pleased with it.

“It’s brought awareness. It’s sort of shook the trees a little bit,” he said.

An independent, third-party contractor, Spire Hawaii, prepared the audit through document reviews, data analysis, interviews and confidential surveys of current and former employees and consumers.

The audit’s findings dominated discussion at Thursday’s meeting of the council’s planning and sustainable land use committee.

Among other things, the 116-page audit found low morale among the zoning staff. Employees surveyed hold a very negative view of their leadership and lack confidence in McLean whom they see as “heavily politicized and unconcerned with staff welfare or input.” Communication between department leadership and employees is “severely damaged,” according to the report.

Maui Planning Director Michele McLean Courtesy: Maui County

Speaking at Thursday’s meeting, McLean praised zoning staff for their dedication, professionalism and commitment despite having extremely hard jobs that routinely involve saying no to members of the public. But she took issue with how her management was characterized.

“I was certainly dismayed to hear some of the comments about communication and support. It wasn’t always clear to me whether that dealt with division management or involved the deputy director and myself,” said McLean. “Regardless, I certainly take those to heart.”

McLean said Friday she thinks the negativity employees expressed in the survey largely stemmed from the way she handled permitting decisions at a monster-sized house in Napili that’s being constructed by developer Greg Brown.

The towering, eight-bedroom home at 5385 Lower Honoapililani Road has drawn intense criticism from neighbors who say that the gargantuan structure should never have been allowed and that it violates numerous code provisions including for height and square footage.

The controversial Napili house being constructed by developer Greg Brown. Courtesy: Napili Bay Community Association

 

McLean said much of the negative criticism of her management stems from the fact that she publicly criticized some supervisory-level zoning employees involved in granting permits to Brown who no longer work for the department.

“It’s important for all staff to realize that I’m not going to throw anybody under the bus publicly and I don’t, in general. The Napili house was exceptional in so many ways, and I think they really felt like I didn’t support them and didn’t back them up,” McLean said.

The Greg Brown house may have exacerbated public frustration with the zoning division but complaints over building permits and enforcement run deep and are longstanding, Molina said.

Maui County Council member Mike Molina Courtesy: Maui County

Molina tried to get an audit launched before last year but he said there wasn’t enough support among his fellow council members. Besides the controversy over the Napili house, some council members finally became motivated to order the review after a group of Honolulu planning department employees were caught up in a bribery scandal that authorities say involved hundreds of millions of dollars, Molina said.

“After that incident some of my colleagues were suddenly like, ‘OK, you know, we better investigate our own department as well,’” he said.

In addition to criticism of McLean’s leadership, the audit found that zoning employees operate without any performance measures, a situation that contributes to lengthy review times and inconsistencies in how building permits are issued.

The staff is also hindered by a lack of training, vacancies, turnover from heavy workloads and a cumbersome process of having applications reviewed by multiple departments and agencies before zoning can take final action, according to the findings.

The report offered numerous recommendations for improvement. McClean told the committee on Thursday that the administration agrees with nearly all of the recommendations and is already taking steps to implement them.

Council member Kelly King sees the report as a good start, but she wants a deeper investigation of the planning department.

Maui County Council member Kelly King 

“We’ve had allegations of bribery from constituents now formalized in an affidavit,” King said.

King plans to introduce a resolution at Tuesday’s council meeting calling for an investigation during which planning and public works officials would be compelled under oath to answer questions regarding why so many irregularities were allowed to take place with construction of the massive home in Napili.

Molina said he’s heard similar allegations of bribery but at this point the evidence isn’t there to substantiate anything.

In the meantime, Molina is preparing a proposal that would have the county exercise the right of eminent domain to take possession of the Greg Brown house and turn it into a community center.

“Let’s just buy the darn thing and use it for some public purpose,” he said. “Call it the Greg Brown Community Center.”

Molina said he plans to bring the idea forth at a June 28 meeting of the Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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