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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 20, 2010

County Council rejects 2 Tavares nominees, criticizes others

The Maui News

WAILUKU, Maui - Heated debate and accusations over volunteers for Maui County boards and commissions made for a tense meeting of the Maui County Council on Friday.

Council members rejected two of Mayor Charmaine Tavares' nominees and nearly torpedoed the appointments of three others. Union leader, Maui Planning Commissioner and well-known paddler Bruce U'u was one of the controversial nominees, with the council divided over his appointment to the Maui County Cultural Resources Commission.

U'u was ultimately approved by a 5-3 vote, with council members Wayne Nishiki, Jo Anne Johnson and Sol Kaho'ohalahala voting "no."

The arguments against seating U'u focused on what some felt was a combative style and disrespectful attitude, as well as questions about his qualifications.

U'u himself stayed away from the debate in council chambers Friday. But at least a dozen of his friends and family members arrived ready to fight what they dubbed a "disgusting" and "dishonorable" smear campaign against a man they called a leader, a great father and a very knowledgeable Hawaiian.

The long day's anger and emotion was palpable enough that police officers were stationed at the two public entrances to ensure order.

Two of Tavares' nominees were rejected Friday.

Council members voted 7-0 not to appoint Robert Pure to the Maui Planning Commission. Some council members previously said they did not think Pure, a Kaanapali resident, represented the choice of West Maui for the commission, and that he should complete his term on the Board of Ethics before seeking another position. Nishiki recused himself from the vote, because Pure served on the board when it investigated and ultimately did not pursue an ethics complaint against him last year.

The council also unanimously voted to reject the nomination of Lanai resident Ron McOmber to the Liquor Control Adjudication Board, after reviewing past complaints of sexual harassment and harassment at past jobs. McOmber previously said the allegations stemmed from workplace disputes and said the complaints had been thoroughly investigated and dropped.

All of Tavares' other nominees for boards and commissions were recommended for approval by committee members, including Shelley Barfield for the Lanai Planning Commission and Marilyn Chapman for the Liquor Control Adjudication Board.

But the mayor's spokeswoman, Mahina Martin, said the accusations and finger-pointing aimed at some nominees Friday could have a lasting negative impact.

"Who's going to want to be on a board or commission now?" Martin said.

The Cultural Resources Commission has nine members, more than half of whom are supposed to be professionals with advanced degrees in Native Hawaiian anthropology, history and other cultural studies, according to the County Code.

Dana Naone Hall argued that there are already many people on the commission whose main qualification is simply their Hawaiian ancestry, and said more people with professional creditials and training are needed.

"Mr. U'u is not qualified, and the CRC is not a training ground," said Hall, who said the appointment was "illegal."

But Corporation Counsel Brian Moto said the law states that the CRC "should" have a majority of professionals - but only if that many are available and willing to serve. The commission also has a professional liaison, Moto noted.

Johnson said she opposed U'u's nominations because she has concerns about the way he treats others. She said he does not behave with fairness or without prejudice, and that he has been confrontational during his time on the planning commission. Johnson said she herself was once verbally abused by U'u when she testified at a commission meeting.

"Forget about the fact that I was treated disrespectfully," she said. "But I also think it's wrong to put people in positions when they can't control their temper to the point that we need to call the police."

She was referring to the council Committee of the Whole meeting on March 4, when officers were called after U'u and some of his critics became involved in a heated exchange of words in the council gallery.

U'u's mother, Verna U'u, said she knew her son to be respectful of others and to care deeply about Native Hawaiian culture, which he demonstrates by building traditional hale and paddling in the Hawaiian Canoe Club.

Susan Moikeha said U'u embodies Hawaiian culture and that critics don't really know him.

On Friday, Johnson also questioned U'u's true allegiances, noting that he is employed by the Hawaii Carpenters Union. Johnson said she was disturbed that when a proposed expansion of the Grand Wailea came before the planning commission recently, U'u took the position that economics should trump Native Hawaiian concerns.

U'u's defenders, though, said he has opposed multimillion-dollar housing developments on the basis that they take away from affordable homes for locals.

Several also said that bashing his character is "not Hawaiian."

Johnson, Kaho'ohalahala and Nishiki also voted against the nomination of Jacey Laborte for the Cultural Resources Commission. Laborte holds three college and advanced degrees, but the administration was unable to tell Kaho'ohalahala whether her fields of expertise included Native Hawaiian studies.

The rest of the council members mustered the votes to confirm Laborte.

Council members reviewed pages of police reports and court decisions related to past sexual harassment complaints and other complaints of harassment against McOmber. The documents stemmed from complaints filed in 2000 and 2004-2005, when he worked for the Lanai Community Hospital and the Lanai Airport.

McOmber already serves on the Liquor Control Board.

Several council members questioned the timing of the revelations.

"Why are we only hearing about this now?" said Council Vice Chairman Mike Molina, who also noted that McOmber was never convicted of any crime.

Kaho'ohalahala, who previously called colleagues' attention to the complaints, said at a prior meeting that he could be objective in voting on McOmber, even though McOmber is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against him.

McOmber is one of 19 Lanai residents seeking to have Kaho'ohalahala removed from office over the claim that he does not meet residency requirements.

Kaho'ohalahala said McOmber lacked the character to be fair and to make good decisions.

"If you read these things, I don't know how anybody can think this is a credible person," Kaho'ohalahala said in a voice wracked with emotion. "It's embarrassing.

"Let's not play games here. Let's be real," he said. "This is not a worthy gentleman to serve on a board or commission. . . . I don't think I can even go so far as to call him a gentleman."

Johnson said she was worried that McOmber would "have an eruption" during a disagreement and then the county potentially would have to defend him in court.

"I don't see this as personal," Johnson said. "I see this as factual. He does not treat other human beings in a respectful and honorable way."

McOmber did not appear at the meeting Friday. He previously said the allegations made against him stemmed from workplace disagreements more than a decade ago and had been dropped after a thorough investigation.

When McComber was nominated to the Liquor Control Board in 2006 by the administration of then-Mayor Alan Arakawa, the lawsuits were included in the process, said Marian Feenstra, Tavares' senior executive assistant.

"We had no knowledge of these accusations," she said.

Another of the plaintiffs suing Kaho'ohalahala, John Ornellas, narrowly received approval to the Lanai Planning Commission.

Council members voted 4-4 on the vote for Ornellas, a tie that will allow him to be appointed, unless the council votes again before a March 30 deadline.

Kaho'ohalahala, Johnson, Nishiki and Council Member Bill Medeiros voted against Ornellas' confirmation, and Chairman Danny Mateo was excused.

Kaho'ohalahala is chairman of the council's Planning Committee, which the Lanai Planning Commission reports to. Because of that relationship, Kaho'ohalahala argued that it would be difficult for the men to work together.

Johnson said Tavares put Kaho'ohalahala in an awkward position by nominating Ornellas and McOmber.