Voters in Maui County will soon decide the fate of a proposal that could open the door to steeper penalties for people who violate county rules.

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Civil fines imposed by the county are currently limited to a maximum of $1,000 per day, with the exception of penalties for illegal short-term rentals, which are much higher. The measure in question would do away with penalty ceilings, granting the County Council more leeway to set higher fines by ordinance for more serious infractions.

One goal is to empower the county government to impose more effective deterrents.

“We have some really big money people that come in and decide they’re going to do whatever the heck they want to do because they look at the cap on fines and it’s like nothing to them,” said Maui Charter Commission member Ashley Olson, who sponsored the measure.

A photograph of the county building in Wailuku.
Maui County voters will decide the outcome of 13 charter amendments on the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

It’s one of 13 proposals to alter Maui County’s governing document that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. Voters will have the chance to approve or reject each charter amendment, marking the culmination of a lengthy process that grants citizens of Maui, Molokai and Lanai an opportunity to refine the political system that shapes their daily lives.

Taken as a whole, the proposals recommended by the seven-member Maui Charter Commission aim to increase transparency in law enforcement, promote government ethics and boost access to public records.

If voters approve proposal No. 6, which would remove caps on fines for charter violations, it would cost taxpayers less than $25,000 to implement, according to a financial analysis by County Auditor Lance Taguchi.

“The idea is to give the county flexibility to have the penalty meet the crime,” said Dick Mayer, a retired University of Hawaii Maui College professor who has been active as a member of the public in the year and a half-long process of generating a series of charter amendment proposals to appear on the ballot.

Given the meteoric rise in inflation, the measure would also let the county adjust fines in step with shifts in purchasing power to help prevent government penalties from becoming trivial.

Olson, who is a teacher at Lahainaluna High School, said she views the measure as a way to encourage would-be violators to think twice before breaking county rules.

“Ten years or 20 years ago, maybe $1,000 was a real deterrent,” Olson said. “But the value of the dollar has changed and the relative wealth of a lot of people in Maui County has changed. You’ve got folks who look at a $1,000 fine and say, ‘So what? I make that in half an hour.’”

Fed up with the proliferation of unlicensed short-term rentals, Maui County voters approved a charter amendment in 2018 to impose harsher penalties for people who operate illegal vacation rentals or bed and breakfast accommodations.

Civil fines for operating an unlicensed short-term rental are now capped at $20,000, plus a $10,000 fine for each day the illegal rental persists. That’s a 20-fold increase from the former maximum penalty.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Do the potential repercussions outweigh the earning potential of some of these illegal vacation rentals?’” Olson said. “Because until there is a potential for these fines to actually hurt, then they’re largely ineffective as a deterrent.”

If voters green light proposal number six, all caps on fines for violations, set by charter would be removed, allowing the council to set new, tougher punishments by ordinance.

Voters are expected to receive their ballots in the mail for the general election by mid-October.

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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