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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 9, 2010

Disorderly agency needs to straighten up

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Albert Einstein once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

He was a smart guy, so odds are he'd think what Honolulu keeps doing with its Liquor Commission is crazy.

The commission is cycling through yet another administrative upheaval, a reminder that the city is apparently incapable of keeping a steady hand in the sometimes unsteady world of liquor sales.

Its administrator, Dewey Kim, has announced plans to resign by the end of the month, in the wake of undisclosed internal complaints that led to his being placed on leave. The last thing this troubled agency needs is more instability. Kim himself was appointed to set it on a better course after a pathetic parade of ethical and criminal lapses since the mid-1990s.

Just in case we've forgotten some of the most recent cases: Eight former investigators were indicted on charges of racketeering, bribery and extortion in 2002; the administrator was stripped of his duties and finally resigned in 2005; two years later, a former investigator pleaded guilty to extortion in exchange for giving club owners tips on inspections.

It's time to quit tinkering around the edges of this dysfunctional agency, blow it up and put the pieces back together in a way that can be efficient as well as accountable.

The basic problem is that even an able administrator may find his hands tied. Attempts to build a crack team of professional inspectors are hamstrung by the complications of union and civil-service rules.

"In any organization, if somebody is not doing stuff that they're supposed to do, it's up to the supervisor to talk to them and say, 'Hey, what's going on?' and that's the stuff that's triggering some of this," Dewey Kim told The Advertiser after being placed on leave in December. "People don't like to be disciplined, especially this organization, and they're going to fight back with this stuff they're doing."

And if the administrator isn't capable, good luck showing him or her the door. That job has civil service protection, too.

This has proven to be completely untenable. This is an agency with an operating budget of $5.3 million for the coming year; it oversees some 1,400 licensed establishments that sell liquor on O'ahu. The people holding the reins of all that should operate with complete accountability, not shielded by union and civil-service protections.

In 2006, the city Charter Commission realized this and put on the ballot an amendment to take away that shield from the top Liquor Commission jobs. The wording of that proposal was anything but clear, and it failed to win enough votes.

A new proposal needs to go before the voters, one that would make the administrator someone appointed by the mayor and ultimately accountable to the city's chief executive. The boss should have complete supervisory authority over the inspectors, who also should not be civil servants.

We envision a group of trained investigators, paid enough to insulate them from influence. Today, entry-level investigators start at less than $36,000 a year and turnover is high. The city needs a broader talent pool than retired police officers.

The agency's budget comes from the annual fees it charges for licenses, which range from $360 for a restaurant serving beer to $3,960 for a hotel; the maximum additional fees, calculated for higher-volume vendors, can rise to $5,000 for manufacturer licenses, all the way to $45,000 for hotels.

If more money is needed to pay a top-notch administrator and experienced, professional inspectors, then licensing fees can be raised.

Honolulu is a busy urban and tourist center operating with a podunk liquor licensing apparatus. Civil service rules win out over protecting the public and the integrity of the inspection system.

The City Council should start working on a radical overhaul of the commission and get that plan before voters in 2012.