"Everybody wants to sue the county," said Wong. He pointed out that Mamuad and the ACLU had brought the case, and to defend against a federal lawsuit costs money. The matter came to the attention of the County Council as an agenda item for the Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee (PIA) on the morning of Monday, March 17, where it was listed as PIA-1 (36).
It appeared in the form of a request by the Corporation Counsel's office to hire a Honolulu law firm as special counsel at a cost estimated at $150,000. Considering that Mamuad never made more than $20 per hour at the height of his career as a part-time county employee, and was paid nothing for his service as a liquor commissioner, the request to spend up to $350 an hour in attorney's fees to defend against his suit raised a few eyebrows. It also seemed unusual, considering that the Corporation Counsel's office itself employs a large legal staff.
On hand to discuss the matter were PIA Committee Chair Riki Hokama and Council members Don Guzman, Mike Victorino, Mike White, Don Couch, Elle Cochran and Stacy Crivello. Excused were Gladys Baisa and Robert Carroll. As the morning wore on, Guzman recused himself (withdrew from proceedings due to a possible conflict of interest). That meant there were only six council members on hand. Five votes would be needed to go into executive session, and five would also be needed for committee approval of money for special counsel.
Mayor Alan Arakawa made a brief cameo appearance in the wings to speak with Wong privately. He did not look happy.
Victorino and White Vote Against Executive Session
Of the six, only White and Victorino turned out to be supporters of the First Amendment. They both voted "no" on a motion to move into executive session, which would have put the entire discussion behind closed doors on a confidential basis. The other four voted "yes," because they wanted to hear the Wong version of the story and did not want the discussion telegraphed to the ACLU. As Wong reminded them, everything said in public discussion might end up being used against the county in future court proceedings. But that's getting ahead of the story
According to Wong, the complaint contained many items that were not factually correct, but which ones specifically, he said, he was not at liberty to discuss in public.
The committee listened to his recitation and asked many questions, but what they really wanted to know was why the matter had come this far and hadn't been settled in-house long ago? They questioned the language of the policy, the actions of various members of the administration and the cost of the proposed defense. Member after member called for mediation--getting all parties together to hash out a settlement.
White took it further, stating he would boycott any executive session. He said he did not want to be bound by confidentiality rules and that the public has a right to know how this simple, internal matter now warranted a six-figure expenditure? He reminded his fellow council members that they would not even authorize $20,000 for legal fees in the demolition of the Wailuku Post Office.
Cochran seemed appalled as she read through the workforce violence policy, and saw that poking fun of Taguma was deemed "cyber-bullying" and was considered an offense to be lumped in with murder and rape. Other council members were also surprised and commented with dismay, "What we say about each other here--we would all be liable."
Crivello seemed concerned if the county had offered Mamuad fair legal representation.
In the end, it was left to Wong to explain how they came to be on the spot and do it in a public forum without revealing any confidential information or strategy.
His version was that because he and a number of his staff are personally named in the suit or would be potential witnesses in the litigation, the entire office would have to withdraw from representing the county. That means the county has to find someone else to do the job, hence the request for special counsel.
Throughout the morning, Wong did the majority of the talking. About halfway through the meeting, Mayor Alan Arakawa appeared quietly at a side door--and he did not look happy. He took Wong aside briefly and the meeting went on.
Wong stressed it would be a very bad idea not to respond to a federal lawsuit by the April 15 deadline, and to not respond at all could jeopardize the county's insurance. He also said that as much as he would like to bring all parties to the table, he was not able to compel Mamuad to do so.
He did not say specifically if he had ever tried.
In the end, it was Chairman Hokama who prevailed, reminding the council members that they had taken an oath to preserve and defend the county, and he for one, took it seriously. Hokama said it would be dereliction of duty to fail to authorize funds for the defense, should one prove to be necessary. The amount under consideration was revised downward to $50,000.
White Votes Against Spending $50K for Special Counsel
Hokama convinced Victorino, who voted with the others to authorize the reduced amount. Only White voted "no," blasting it as bad management, a bad precedent and a matter that needed to be settled by other means--and rapidly.
Following the meeting, White commented that he knew little about social media, did not have a personal Facebook page and had never looked at MAUIWatch. He said his position was based purely on First Amendment right-to-free-speech grounds. He seemed totally unaware that he had just potentially made 26,000 new friends.
Victorino explained his vote against closing the meeting, saying it was "important for the public to have an understanding of where the matter stood and that should be done in an open meeting." As for his vote to approve the money, he said that the chair's argument about the need to defend the county's interest proved persuasive.
Victorino also said that there may yet be a special executive session of the PIA committee called soon so Wong can explain the county's side of the situation more fully. Victorino added that he expects that meeting to come before the April 4 meeting, when the matter will come before the full council.