Honolulu City Council members on Wednesday called for increased oversight of the Honolulu Liquor Commission amidst allegations that commission investigators have abused their authority by bullying bar owners and retaliating against those who have spoken out.

“There’s no checks and balances currently,” council member Esther Kiaaina said Wednesday, as the council considered the nomination of two members for the five-person board that oversees the commission.

Honolulu Liquor Commission, Dillon Hullinger
The Honolulu City Council on Wednesday voted to reappoint union business agent Dillon Hullinger to the Honolulu Liquor Commission board, despite opposition from City Council Chairman Tommy Waters and council member Andria Tupola. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

The questioning by Kiaaina and her fellow council member Andria Tupola illustrated the increased pressure the agency faces as Hawaii emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic heightened tensions between bar owners and investigators charged with enforcing Covid-related restrictions on the businesses.

In addition to complaints made to elected officials like Kiaaina and Tupola, the agency is facing a federal lawsuit alleging civil rights violations brought by a Chinatown bar. In addition, the commission’s top administrative position is open following the resignation of its previous administrator, Don Pacarro, who quietly stepped down after nearly eight years to join the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in April.

Although the official focus of Wednesday’s council meeting was filling another vacancy – on the board that oversees the commission — Kiaaina and Tupola used the proceeding to question the commission’s acting administrator, Anna Hirai, about the policies and procedures established to hold the commission’s investigators accountable.

Kiaaina mentioned the possibility of establishing an ombudsman to handle complaints from business owners. She also asked whether the commission had ever established an internal affairs unit, which was recommended by a 2005 audit and later follow-up recommendations.

Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina.
Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina said Wednesday that she would not disclose to the Liquor Commission bar owners who have come to her with confidential complaints about the commission. “I don’t have the level of confidence with the commission, right now,” she said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“Liquor commission management, and others familiar with the commission we spoke with, agree that a problem with the commission is the lack of a dedicated internal affairs unit,” Honolulu City Auditor Leslie Tanaka reported in 2005.

But nearly two decades later, the commission has yet to set up such a unit. Instead, Hirai explained, the commission has one investigator on contract to conduct internal inquiries as needed. The commission decided a permanent unit was “too costly and not a good use of resources,” Hirai said.

But Tupola noted that, like other regulatory agencies, the commission’s funding comes from fees paid by licensees and that the commission generally has a surplus of cash that could be used for internal affairs.

“There’s definitely enough funds there,” Tupola said.

Opinions also differed on how to handle complaints from businesses. After Kiaaina said she has heard complaints about the commission from a number of bar owners, Hirai suggested Kiaaina refer the bar owners to the commission to address their concerns. Kiaaina said she didn’t feel comfortable doing that.

“I don’t have the level of confidence with the commission, right now,” she said.

Despite such misgivings, the council voted to reappoint one of the commission board members, Dillon Hullinger, a union business agent, despite “no” votes by Tupola and City Council Chairman Tommy Waters.

“We may need to overturn the commission and start anew,” Tupola said, explaining her opposition.

The council voted unanimously to confirm a new board member, Honolulu attorney Seth Buckley.

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