Maui County voters will decide whether to strengthen ethics and transparency in government when they cast their ballots in the Nov. 8 general election.

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Two proposed amendments to the county charter deal with financial disclosures, conflicts of interest and banning the practice of forcing newly appointed administrative heads to give the mayor signed resignation letters upon hire.

A total of 13 proposed changes to the county charter will appear on the ballot, which voters can expect to receive in the mail by Oct. 21. The two dealing with government ethics and transparency are proposals three and seven.

A charter is essentially a county’s constitution, a guiding document defining the responsibilities of local government. In Maui county, the charter gets reviewed every 10 years by the public and the Maui County Charter Commission, a body that consists of nine members appointed by the Maui County Council and two appointed by the mayor.

M County Bldg
Maui County voters will soon determine the fate of two charter amendments on government ethics and transparency. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

One proposal would require financial disclosure statements by appointed officers and employees prior to taking office or participating in any official capacity. It would prohibit officers and employees from taking official actions in which they have a direct or indirect financial interest. And it would bar them from using or attempting to use their county position for unwarranted advantage to themselves or others.

“This goes to the fundamental principle of the public’s need to restore and rebuild their trust in their elected officials,” said Heather Ferguson, director of Hawaii operations for Common Cause, a nonpartisan national watchdog that advocates for accountable government.

Heather Ferguson is director for state operations of Common Cause. Courtesy: Common Cause

All it takes are a few high-profile scandals to erode the public trust in government officials and one of the issues that constantly comes up are conflicts of interest, Ferguson said.

Conflicts of interest involving political appointees and county employees are no strangers to Maui, said Lance Collins, a per diem judge and attorney who previously served on the Maui Charter Commission.

The purpose of the charter amendment is to make it clear that such behavior is unlawful, Collins said. He stepped down from the commission when he began serving as a judge.

A recent example of political wrongdoing on Maui – one that goes far beyond having a conflict of interest — involves Stewart Stant, the former director of the Maui Department of Environmental Management. Stant pleaded guilty last month to felony charges for accepting $2 million worth of bribes from Honolulu businessman Milton Choy in order to steer business to Choy’s company.

Stewart Olani Stant stands with his attorney outside District Court.
Stewart Stant pleaded guilty last month to felony charges for accepting $2 million worth of bribes from Honolulu businessman Milton Choy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

It’s scandals like these that poison the public’s trust in government which has sunk to the lowest it’s been in decades, said Ferguson.

Strengthening a charter, rather than putting language into an ordinance, elevates the significance of an issue, she said.

Statutes and ordinances can be rewritten and weakened as administrations change, whereas putting financial disclosure and ethics requirements into a charter enshrines how important transparency is when it comes to mitigating conflicts of interest, Ferguson added.

Madge Schaefer, a longtime Maui resident and former California public official, said she’s pleased to see the charter amendment on the ballot, something for which she advocated.

Schaefer filed a complaint with the Board of Ethics against council member Kelly King in 2019. She alleged that King pushed for a tax policy favorable to her company, Pacific Biodiesel, during council budget discussions.

King denied advocating for her company and said she was merely answering questions from other council members about biodiesel taxes.

The Board of Ethics issued an advisory opinion, finding that King’s comments during the budget discussions amounted to advocacy and were incompatible with the proper discharge of her duties but stopped short of issuing a sanction or penalty.

Madge Schaefer, a former California public official, advocated for the charter amendment to be put before voters. Maui County/Facebook

In Schaefer’s view, the proposed charter amendment will go a long way toward making it “exquisitely clear” that advocating for an official action when an elected official or government employee has a vested interest is just not allowed.

On the need for financial disclosure reports, Dave DeLeon, a retired county employee, former journalist and member of the charter commission, said there have been times when political appointees have failed to file disclosures or have dragged their feet in doing so. The proposed charter amendment is designed to correct that, he said.

Preemptive Letters Of Resignation?

Another proposal would require any administrative head appointed by the mayor to immediately vacate their position if the County Council rejects their appointment.

The charter amendment emerged, in part, from concerns expressed over a 2019 incident when the County Council rejected Mayor Michael Victorino’s nomination of three department heads: John Kim, prosecuting attorney; William Spence, Department of Housing and Human Concerns; and David Goode, Public Works Department.

Although a majority on the council rejected the appointments, Victorino temporarily appointed them anyway to the dismay of some council members, according to Hawaii News Now. Victorino said at the time that it was to ensure continuity in government, the station reported.

A screenshot of Mayor Michael Victorino's State of the County address.
Mayor Michael Victorino has required some newly appointed administrative heads to submit undated resignation letters as a condition of their appointment, a practice that a proposed charter amendment would ban. Screenshot/2022

Another provision of the charter amendment would bar the mayor from requiring newly appointed administrative heads, such as department directors, to submit pre-signed, undated resignation letters as a condition of their appointment.

This practice is controversial but used by high-ranking public officials at times so they can exert control over subordinates or quickly fire them. They might choose the secret resignation letter route in hopes of avoiding litigation, a public relations scandal, or objections from a county council.

Some political appointees can’t be fired unilaterally by a Maui mayor unless the council concurs. These include the head of Corporation Counsel, the Prosecuting Attorney, and the director of Water Supply, according to the Office of Council Services.

But many other director-level executives serve at the pleasure of the mayor.

If a resignation letter is on file, a mayor can execute it if he or she sours on a director, forcing the person out without having to acknowledge a firing.

Critics say the practice impedes a director’s ability to be impartial, shuts the public out and serves as a de facto loyalty pledge to the mayor.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed recently came under fire for engaging in the practice. In late September after the San Francisco Standard exposed that she was forcing her appointees to sign undated resignation letters, Breed publicly said she would stop doing it and would cancel any letters on file. She did so after supervisors called for legislation to ban the practice, according to the news site.

Attorney Lance Collins says conflicts of interest are no strangers to Maui County. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The Standard and the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Breed had directed 40 appointees to sign preemptive letters of resignation before or while they were serving on boards and commissions.

Brian Perry, a spokesman for Mayor Victorino, said Wednesday that he did not know much about whether his boss requests undated resignation letters from his appointed directors before they can serve or take official actions.

He said Thursday that Victorino was unavailable for an interview.

Collins said the language of the amendment that will go before voters was “toned down” but would still prohibit the practice. It initially would have required going before a notary no more than 10 days prior to resigning.

Grant Chun, commission chair, said he couldn’t recall why the issue arose in the first place or if any Maui mayor has required preemptive resignation letters. Victorino’s predecessor, Alan Arakawa, did not return a message seeking comment.

“It may have been based on rumors about the practice or fears that it could happen, but I do not recall any instance where it happened,” said Chun.

Keola Whittaker, an attorney with the Office of Corporation Counsel who advised the charter commission, said by email it may have been based “on rumors about the practice or fears that it could happen, but I do not recall any instance where it happened.”

Spokespeople for the mayors of Honolulu, Kauai and Hawaii counties all said they were unaware of any requirement for pre-filed resignation letters from administrative heads.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed stopped requiring preemptive letters of resignation after coming under public scrutiny last month. Courtesy: San Francisco Mayor's Office

William Spence, a former planning director who later was nominated by Victorino to be housing director, said he recalls some directors being asked to sign undated resignation letters as a condition of their appointment. Spence said he can’t recall if he signed one or not.

Another former Victorino official says he was asked to sign an undated resignation letter after he was already confirmed by the County Council.

“The many directors that I had spoken to had all signed as part of the condition for their appointment. They signed prior to their confirmation by the County Council,” said Don Guzman, former Prosecuting Attorney.

Victorino fired Guzman in October 2020 for allegedly violating workplace anti-violence rules and the County Council voted to remove him in December of that year. Guzman, who says he has a diabetic condition that affected his behavior, is suing the county for wrongful termination.

Maui’s longtime Planning Director Michele McLean said she has never signed an undated resignation letter, under Victorino or Arakawa.

Other department heads could not be reached.

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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