There's nothing like a nice federal lawsuit to get your attention, and the recent filing of Neldon Mamuad complaint against the County of Maui alleging violation of his First Amendment rights has all the ingredients for juicy drama-- as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of our local government.
Mamuad is a part-time county employee and a volunteer liquor commissioner. In his lawsuit, he is represented by the ACLU of Hawai'i Foundation (ACLU) and a team of other high-profile lawyers. They filed a federal lawsuit and request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against the County of Maui in Honolulu on March 3. An ACLU press release said the action is "based on the county's efforts to restrict what Neldon Mamuad may say on his prominent MAUIWatch Facebook feed."
The lawsuit asks for a court order declaring the county's actions to be unconstitutional as well as the removal of any record of disciplinary action from Mamuad's employment records (the text of the 34-page complaint can be viewed at personal.crocodoc.com/kQ791Yt).
Photo: AZD & Associates
The county legal team stars Patrick Wong, Maui County's corporation counsel (who is personally named in the suit) and a supporting cast of deputies, as well as a number of administration officials, including Managing Director Keith Regan.
The plaintiff, Mamuad, is an unlikely victim of his own success. While working part-time in the office of Councilmember Don Guzman (whose campaign he co-chaired in 2012), Mamuad also grew the MAUIWatch Facebook page to more than 26,000 "likes," a figure that makes it largest circulation media vehicle in the county. The growth was accomplished in less than a year and has been warmly received by the public.
How Mamuad, a Molokai native and former radio personality, came to head the homegrown social media effort is a story in itself, and is at the core of the complaint.
The Facebook page was originally named TAGUMAWatch. It followed the activities of Keith Taguma the high-profile Maui Police Department parking officer in Wailuku.
Taguma--as every Wailuku driver knows--is zealous in his enforcement of the parking limits in the town and seems to be everywhere with his ticket pad. Opinions here are mixed on whether he's just doing his job (as some think) or (as others believe) doing some harassing on his own. But no matter which way Taguma is perceived, everybody knows who he is. Taguma is a very well-known cop about town.
Taguma did not like the watchdog watching him, and asked that TAGUMAWatch be stopped. Early on, Wong met with Mamuad and asked him to take the page down; they compromised on changing its name to MAUIWatch. But even after the name change was made in September 2013, Taguma filed a formal complaint alleging harassment by Mamuad. The county responded with disciplinary action but failed to provide an avenue for appeal.
MAUIWatch Takes Off
In the meantime, MAUIWatch zoomed in circulation. It offers a fast-paced blend of crowd-sourced local news, including traffic conditions, accidents, lurking police cars and hot spots. It had the leading and most reliable coverage of the search for two missing women. It was first on the scene for the Lana'i plane crash. A professional meteorologist has been added to the team. More and more Mauians turn to the page daily for traffic updates and news laced with a bit of humor.
TAGUMA-Watch was a clever hook to get Facebook users to take a look (when the page first launched, it drew 9,000 "likes" within a short time). However, as MAUI-Watch's numbers grew even more rapidly as it evolved into a more wide-ranging format. To say it's hot would be an understatement.
But while the site was attracting an ever-increasing number of users, the Taguma complaint was working its way through the halls of the county building.
Mamuad was eventually cited for harassment under provisions the county's "workplace violence" policies (which include murder, rape and strangulation). A letter dated Jan. 21, signed by county Managing Director Keith Regan, required mandatory enrollment in an Employee Assistance Program (EPA) to address harassment within 90 days. Mamuad could find no procedure to appeal the disciplinary action.
Instead of being amused and impressed by the diligence and success of a low-level employee, the county responded with threats and intimidation.
Quite understandably, Mamuad didn't want to be tagged for the rest of his life as a perpetrator of violence in the workplace for exercising his right of "free speech."
The matter seemed to be at an impasse when the ACLU took the case. Its press release dated March 14 noted that so far this year, there have been three First Amendment violations by the county.
The TRO asks that the county immediately stop threatening Mamuad for his speech and conduct outside of work. Cooperating Attorney Marcus Landsberg IV and Maui-based Attorneys Phillip Lowenthal and Samuel MacRoberts are assisting with the case.
According to ACLU Hawai'i Senior Attorney Daniel M. Gluck, "The Plaintiff [Mamuad] is willing to discuss settlement of this suit at any time, and we have repeatedly communicated this to the county's lawyers." Commenting on March 18 in a follow-up email, he said, "We went to court only after the Maui County Department of Management repeatedly declined to inform us of any other avenue for Mr. Mamuad to appeal the disciplinary action. We are very hopeful that we can resolve this issue quickly, so that Mr. Mamuad can exercise his First Amendment right to speak freely."
As to what costs the county faces in defending this suit, Gluck wrote: "As a general rule, a plaintiff who prevails in a federal civil rights lawsuit is entitled to recover reasonable attorneys' fees and costs from the defendant. In other words, if Plaintiff (Mamuad) prevails in this lawsuit, the County of Maui will likely be required to reimburse Plaintiff's lawyers for their time and for their out-of-pocket costs, like filing fees (in addition to having to pay its own attorneys to defend the suit). Again, we are hopeful that the county will resolve this issue quickly, to keep these costs--ultimately paid by Maui County taxpayers--to a minimum."