Some Honolulu businesses have received more than one inspection a month and others none at all, the commission heard.

Chair of the Honolulu Liquor Commission Seth Buckley said he is committed to finding a path forward for the troubled organization following the release of a damning internal review Tuesday.

Buckley’s comments came at a two-hour special meeting Thursday given over to a presentation of the review findings by Hui Chen, a strategic advisor to the City and County of Honolulu. 

“We believe the public needed a report of this nature,” Buckley said.

The 91-page report documented low staff morale, muddled policies and procedures and haphazard data management. The focus of the special meeting was on the agency’s future.

Chen said she did not want to place blame and instead “look to see what can help us change.” Chen added that “leadership and commitment” are the two critical areas that will dictate the success of any reform efforts.

A special meeting of the Honolulu Liquor Commission Thursday heard details of a blistering internal review, and committed to make major reforms in the organization. (Jake Indursky/Civil Beat/2023)

Buckley and Commissioners Jeff Hong and Dillon Hullinger praised the report, and Hong proposed bringing back Chen in a year to assess the commission’s progress.

Chen said that of all the employees she asked, only one person would recommended working at the commission. But she said that the “employees really do want to be good at their jobs.”

In response to concerns about staff morale Buckley said “They’re stuck, and part of our job is to give them tools.”

Buckley also noted that the paper-based systems in place now are “outdated” and “prone to error and less transparency.”

The commission and Chen spent time reviewing concerns about the wide variation in inspection data, which showed that some businesses received more than one inspection a month while others had never been inspected.

“One of the chief things I’m concerned with is the targeting of establishments, whether intentional or unintentional,” Buckley said. That point was made against the background of a pending federal civil suit against the commission alleging discriminatory inspections and targeting “solely because they are LGBTQ+ businesses and establishments.”

Chen said that in her review she “did not find any evidence of intentional discrimination,” but because of a lack of methodology and data to guide inspections, staff may rely on “subjective impressions” which can be biased.

Chen also reviewed her specific recommendations, saying she tried to focus on short-term goals that were not overly reliant on other city departments. Chen pointed to technology updates, improved training, better complaint and inspection tracking systems and increased community engagement as areas of focus.

“Small changes can lead to big changes,” Chen said. “Take a few things, start there, and do them well.”

Honolulu Council member Esther Kiaaina said Thursday that she would hold an informal briefing in July to discuss a timeline for implementing some of the recommendations from the report.

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