POSTED: 06 OCTOBER 2004 - 2:30pm HST

Secret meetings about Lihue Transfer Station

Picking up illegally disposed metal in Hawaii

by Ray Chuan - 5 October 2004
One of the curious aspects of the relationship between the Kauai County Council and the Administration is how the two entities seem to be at logger-heads much of the time and yet, when things get  rough for the Administration the Council goes out of its way to protect, cover up or run interference for the Administration.  A recent example of this is the so-called White Goods fire at the Lihue Transfer Station on July 15.  Both sides seemed to go out of its way to get mobilized to analyze how the County’s Emergency Response System dealt with this fire.  In the process, the cause of the fire was completely ignored.  There were, however, a few dissenting opinions.
Councilman Mel Rapozo revealed how he had scrutinized the contract the County wrote for an outfit called Abe’s from Honolulu to sort (separating the real white goods from other junk that included a significant amount of hazardous waste) and remove the separated waste to the Puhi Metals Recycling Center and the Kekaha Landfill.  Upon visiting the Lihue Transfer Station, (where the mixed waste, not just white goods, had been accumulating for at least six years that I know of) Mel discovered that the contractor was not separating the mixed waste (which constituted the major part of the effort covered by the contract) but was picking the mixed waste as was and transporting it to the Puhi Facility, for which Abe’s happened to be also the contractor.  Councilman Rapozo also observed that there was no County personnel present to monitor the work at either Lihue or Puhi.  Not long after Rapozo’s visit to Lihue Transfer Station this mysterious fire started, while the County and contractor workers were at lunch.  In the ensuing emergency all the mixed waste was taken to Puhi, thereby making easy the final phase of the contractor’s job and, incidentally, nearly completely obliterated any evidence that might have helped explain how the fire started.
The fire started at Lihue at about noon on July 15.  What mixed waste there remained during and after the fire was transported to Puhi where it was, providentially, consumed by another un-explained fire that evening!  This second fire did not seem to interest the County enough to mobilize again its Emergency Response System; but was reportedly allowed to burn itself out after five hours in the night.
Since July there have been several sessions at the Council where the main effort was to concentrate on an evaluation of the effectiveness of the County’s emergency response system.  No attention at all was given to questions of the origins of the fires themselves, despite Rapozo’s separate report on the contract violations, a report from the Chief of Police K.C. Lum that his office had initiated a criminal investigation, and my presentation of aerial photos that clearly showed not only the size of the mountain of mixed waste before the fire , but also that the waste had been stockpiled on un-prepared ground surface.  This last act of negligence can easily trigger a  federal investigation into violations of the Clean Water Act.
Yet the whole attention of the Administration and the Council has been to polish off the Final Report on the response to the fire.  When I tried to remind the Council, again. on September 30, that the real problem had to do with how all that mountain of mixed waste got there in the first place and how the fire started, Council Chair Kaipo Asing tried his best to invoke his 3-minute rule to shut me up.  He also tried to deflect Rapozo’s repeated requests for more information from the Administration in order to get a real Final Report, by hurriedly terminating the deliberations and deferring the matter to future meetings.
The one glimmer of light in the shroud of denial and smoke screens of mutual protection is that there are a few conscientious County workers who would be Whistle Blowers.  Some of us Nitpickers do hear occasionally from the whistle blowers.  I myself never ask for, nor want to know the identity of my whistle blowers.  Their satisfaction, I think, is in hearing on Hoike TV of the Council or Planning Commission sessions my explaining that my whistle blowers had told me such and such.  Sometimes I hear things before they come up at meetings.  This week, surprisingly, what I hear will apparently be the subject of an Executive Session at the October 7 Council meeting.  This is how it is posted in the Agenda of the Council meeting:
ES-159  Pursuant to Hawaii Revised Statute SS92-4 and 92-5(a)(4), the purpose of this executive session is to discuss the status of the County of Kauai Contract N0.6644 (Island Recycling, Inc.).  This consultation involves consideration of the powers, duties privileges, immunities, and/or liabilities of the Council and the County as they relate to this agenda item.  (Deferred 09/30/04)
Many a time over the past many years I have complained to the Council that this County’s Purchasing Division does a very poor job of protecting the interests of the County.  In other words, many contractors can make suckers of this County to collect lots of money without necessarily doing an honest job.  The 7-year leak of the Kilauea Gym is a classic example.  Often, even when a contractor does not do an honest job he not only avoids paying penalties, but could end up with the County paying him to settle the lawsuit.  The real story and real cost (to the taxpayers) are always hidden behind these Executive Sessions.  I am among a small band of stubborn individuals who have tried to penetrate the Iron Curtain of this Council, so far without success.  I recently filed a request (under provisions of Hawaii Revised Statues Chapter 92- the Sunshine Law) for minutes of several executive sessions.  So far the Council has not even extended the courtesy of acknowledging the receipt of my request.
Back to the case of Island Recycling, Inc.  This case goes all the way back to Hurricane Iniki which left Kauai with huge mountains of broken buildings and the contents therein.  Then Mayor Yukimura came up with an idea that was popular among environmentalists at the time – to re-use the damaged goods where possible.  A grant of over two million dollars was negotiated with the Economic Development Administration of the federal government, to build a facility next to the Lihue Transfer Station.  The beautiful building with a blue roof that one would see while going from the Airport to Ahukini Landing was completed some time after Yukimura left office; and the job of filling it with a Re-Use facility was left to Mayor Kusaka.  Over the years as it sat empty various names were bestowed upon it.  I’m not sure what it is called now; but the popular appellation seems to have settled on “The White Elephant.  Not wishing to admit defeat and having to return the money to the government, the County hired consultants and got help from DEBDT to design and circulate three procurement documents between about 1998 and 2002; and received no bid.  I was the only non-Kauai government person that showed up at the Bidders’ Conference for the third attempt.  I was a spectator, of course.  With the fourth attempt and a lot of inducements the County finally found a contractor willing to bid the job.  That contractor is Island Recycling, Inc.
So it is “recycling”, after all; but the County already has a contractor doing recycling – Garden Isle Recycling.  With a fixed supply of recyclable waste, how to pay one contractor to recycle part of the supply without subtracting a like amount from the other has thus become the playing of a Zero Sum Game that must not end up a zero sum game.  To keep the new game player in the game and thereby satisfy the EDA while not taking off too much business from the first contractor has meant trying to keep them both happy.  It would take a genius; and you all know we ain’t got one in this government.  The emphasis is on keeping Island Recycling happy with inducements while not displeasing Garden Isle Recycling.  One way to make Island Recycling happy would be to reduce its cost of doing business while receiving the. same payment.  At this point you must be thinking about the County’s other favorite contractor – Abe’s, who has been able to reduce its cost by not separating the mixed waste at the Lihue Transfer Station, or better yet, by dis-appearing the stuff altogether with a good fire or two.
It is a bit of mystery how and where Island Recycling gets its raw waste before it does its recycling magic.  Regardless of how and where, there is always residue waste after the recycling has been applied.  That residue is supposed to be hauled to the Kekaha Landfill, of course; and that is a pretty long haul.  Ah, but the Lihue Transfer Station is right next door to the White Elephant where Island Recycling does its recycling.  So the word coming out of Ahukini Road seems to be that Island Recycling is dumping its residue waste right into the big compactor at the Lihue Transfer Station and thence to Kekaha on a County truck.  The word also has it that County equipment, and maybe even County workers are used to move the stuff from Island Recycling to Lihue Transfer Station.
So I guess that’s what our secretive County attorneys and Council members will be talking about this coming Thursday afternoon in Executive Session 159.  My bet is that the County will not get any refund from Contract 6644.  Instead, the contractor is likely to sue the County.  The lawsuit will last years, with an ultimate secret settlement that will be paid out of the pockets of the hapless taxpayers.
In the mean time, Chair Asing will be devising the appropriate cover for the Public Works Department.



Secret Meetings & Useless Commissions

14 August 2004 - 7:00pm

Pediment over the old County Building entrance

by Ray Chuan on 13 August 2004

All this business about a Cost Control and Revenue Commission, at the Council sessions and in the Garden Island today, had me wondering what this was all about.  Then I ran into the Council session on Hoike this evening and began to understand what it apparently really is.
At best, this idea of using an appointed commission to do the budgeting for the county represents a misunderstanding of how a contemporary American municipality is supposed to work.  At worst, it is a bunch of smokescreen to get the Council off the hook of its responsibility in exercising its duty to fashion the budget for the best interest of the taxpayers.  Specifically, this amorphous entity will shoulder the responsibility for exercising fiscal oversight over this county government, an oversight function this Council, at least over the decade I have been observing it, has steadfastly refused to assume.  The result of which irresponsibility is the ever increasing yearly spending of this county, financed mainly by the property tax payers.  From 1997 to 2003 our annual spending went up 45%, three times the rise with the Maui County spending, and four times that of the average rise for the whole state.
And what do we get for the over $100 million our county will spend this coming year?  We get to bitch before the Mayor’s Ka Leo meetings month after month and, besides affording the Mayor the opportunity to brag about it (and, incidentally, getting the County sued by Peter Guber in federal court over the inept handling of the so-called public access issue), nothing.  In the mean time, neighborhoods are lost to huge increases in property tax or rents and conversion of homes to motels (aka vacation rentals).
The reason our county wastes so much of our money is that we have a bunch of protected upper and middle level county workers and bureaucrats who truly believe that the best way to deal with problems is to do nothing, because that is the easiest way, since nobody is accountable for any screw-ups.  A classic example of this Kauai County modus operandi is the recent fire near the Airport that  triggered an apparently un-planned exercise of our Emergency Operation over which the Council spent almost eight hours congratulating everybody, until Councilman Mel Rapozo unceremoniously raised the question about how and why the fire started.  While everyone in the Solid Waste office, a part of the Public Works Dept, knew that the fire started because the county had been illegally dumping mixed and hazardous waste on an un-prepared site (dumping stuff on plain dirt, that is, without any containment) for six to eight years, and the stuff caught fire, either by spontaneous combustion of by the careless handling of the waste during a supposedly clean-up job given to the County’s favorite contractor at the usual munificent price tag  of several hundred thousand dollars. 

All questions asked by the Council about the fire itself were adroitly deflected by our Spin Meister par excellence, the Deputy County Engineer, with “That will be in the Report.”  Whether the Report will become a reality or remain a Myth is a question apparently nobody cares to contemplate.  If and when the State Department of Health and/or the EPA levies a fine against the county the matter will be lost in the mist of one of those Executive Sessions that the current Council seems to favor as a way of hiding from the public the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid out in fines and outside attorneys’ fees.
Sorry!  I digress.  Back to the amorphous Cost Control and Revenue Commission.  Let’s dissect the title.  Cost Control.  How in the world can a bunch of laymen, whose duties and responsibilities and accountabilities are undefined, know what the cost of running a government is, much less know how to control it.  I thought that was the mayor’s job; or at least the mayor is the ultimate accountable person.  The “Control” rests in the hands of the Council whose elected members are accountable to the citizens of the island – at least theoretically!  Costs and Revenues are the province of the professionals in the Finance Department, as far as dollars and cents are concerned.  In all reasonably well run governments the legislative side of the house has support staff in law and  finance who inform the legislators who, in pursuing certain policy goals, make decisions.
As for “Revenue”, how will this Cost Control and Revenue Commission go about ascertaining the anticipated revenues coming into this county without professional help.  The Professional Help is in the Finance Department already.  Nothing is said in the plan offered by the Council  as to how the Commission is supported by a professional staff.  The Council, by setting the tax rates, is by law the final arbiter of the largest part of the total revenue – the property tax, which in our county accounts for half of the total revenue.  The other half the county has little control over, those revenues being decided by the state and the federal governments.  Councilman Furfaro went to great lengths discussing the Transient Accommodation Tax, definitely showing his expertise acquired in the hotel business.  But the TAT goes to the state; and how much the state legislature decides what part of the County’s TAT comes back to the County is both an unknown and, by itself, not a very significant fraction of the total non-property tax revenue the county receives, especially when compared to the Property Tax over which the Council has ultimate control through the adoption of the Tax Rates – a control this Council has declined to exercise.  And that is certainly not a responsibility of an appointed lay membership of the Commission that is not answerable to the electorate.
Councilman Furfaro, in further extolling the virtues of his brainchild, made the assertion that the members of the Commission would be closer to the citizens of this county, an astounding assertion coming from an elected official who is directly accountable to the citizens who elected him.  Another virtue of the Cost Control and Revenue Commission, its longevity (which, by the way, has not been established) or terms of service, is supposed to provide continuity.  That is a rather strange attribute when it is quite well known that no elected or appointed body in this government possesses longer tenure than the County Council in the absence of Term Limit.
To sum up, the alleged functions of this amorphous commission are already embedded in the Finance Department (from which this Commission will draw professional support, no doubt, if and when it is established); and the professional capabilities are either already in the Council Services Office or can be easily enhanced by the addition of professional staff.  (This office, by the way, is by far the hardest working and smartest group of dedicated workers one can find in our otherwise dismal county government; and yet is funded by the most pitiable budget of less than half a million dollars, compared to the $15 million in the Finance Dept and $32 million in the headless and most dysfunctional Department of Public Works.)  
Regardless of the motivations behind the push to create this strange creature I see it as an essentially useless commission whose only possible worth is to be the Fig Leaf for an irresponsible County Council.
Council Chair Asing and Councilwoman Yukimura basically sounded the same reservations during deliberations at the August 12 Council meeting, though they were much more polite than I can be, and each added that he/she would support the move anyway. 
As if to counter the charges of some of us Nitpickers that this Council refuses to conduct an audit of the Administration of this County Government, there is a curious item in next week’s Council agenda that calls for a resolution to conduct a Performance Audit of the Building Division of the Department of Public Works, presumably over the debacle of the eight-year leaky Kilauea Gym.  The cynical part of me would say this is all window dressing.  The Council knows as well as I do that the problems at Public Works are so deeply systemic that a mere audit of one division will do very little to address the real problems.  I doubt very much the Council is serious about even this very limited effort at exposing the real problems in one division.  For one thing, I would challenge the Council to disclose, before anything else is done, how much it has cost the taxpayers of this County over the past eight years to ignore, then hide, then white-wash the years of indignity imposed on the residents of Kilauea and especially the young people who suffer a wet gym while wondering how this could happen. 

The Council would almost certainly take refuge behind their Executive Sessions to hide the truth from the electorate, while putting up a show audit.  This is one of the reasons I have requested from the Council, pursuant to the state’s Sunshine Law, minutes of a number of Executive  Sessions, including ES-126 which has appeared on the Council’s meeting agendas innumerable times in the past several months.  I will almost certainly be turned down, in which case I will have to go to the OIP, the Office of Information Policy, to file a complaint.  Ultimately, as I have, unfortunately, learned over the past decade, that the only way to get this county to respond is to take them to court.  The irony there, again unfortunately, is that the final burden will fall on the pocketbook of the taxpayers.  I wish there was a way to effectively punish government officials, particularly the non-elected ones.
But that’s another tale that I will get into at a later date.  For now, I’ve probably said too much already.



POSTED: 4 AUGUST 2004 - 5:00am HST

Resource Center Fire

The Resource Center just north of the airport in Lihue

by Ray Chuan on 1 August 2004

The Council meeting of last Thursday, July 29, was the most depressing meeting I have ever attended in the last ten years! Both the Council and the Administration outdid themselves. There was only one topic on the agenda: a report from the Administration on the emergency response to the fire at the Resource Center (aka the White Elephant) two weeks ago. If the people at the County in charge of Emergency Response (for which they are getting over a million dollars from the feds to buy all kinds of new radio gear etc – a real boon no doubt to the electronics/communications industry) to test the system they couldn’t have planned a mock exercise better. What took place was a classic Keystone Cops performance; but that’s not the real subject that should concern the poor property tax payers on this island. What really mattered was what caused the fire in the first place, which question was not on the agenda; and which was not mentioned in the Garden Island report the next day, even after I had explicitly told Lester Chang, a reporter for the paper, that the real story was the fire itself.

Fortunately, Council member Mel Rapozo chose to deal with the fire; and I attended this particular meeting for the same reason – how and where the fire started. It was, as most of us who have been watching the continuing malfeasance in the County’s Solid Waste Program anticipated, a fire that was waiting to happen. For more than six years (the length of time I have been watching, probably longer) the solid-waste people have been stockpiling thousands of tons of what they call “white goods” at the Lihue Transfer Station. Let me state very strongly in the beginning that it was not white goods, but mixed waste of all but green waste, though including such items as old refrigerators, stoves, washer-driers that are classified as white goods. Supposedly residents are to discard real white goods at the transfer stations. The Hanalei Transfer Stationis, as far as I can tell, the only one where the station crew make sure the right items are left at the spot designated for white goods. What really happens is that the County collects whatever is left at the transfer stations that aren’t dumped into the giant compactor, and takes it to the Lihue Transfer Station. Mel Rapozo said at the Thursday meeting that he had inspected the huge mountain of the alleged “white goods” and found all kinds of metallic objects, including car engines, tires and almost anything you can name. I agreed completely with Mel’s revelation, because I had been taking fotos of the mixed trash mountain for years.

It is against the law – county, state and EPA – to place mixed trash in a location that is not specifically prepared to receive it. The major requirement is that the surface be made sufficiently compact, and possibly lined, so that various fluids (oils, Freon, paints etc, etc) would not seep into the ground. Nothing of the kind was done at the Lihue Transfer Station. Something like this actually happened before at a location very close to this recent depository of mixed trash. An outfit called Masterworks had a contract with the County in the early 90’s to collect and process –meaning draining all the fluids – junk cars and ship them to Honolulu for disposal into scrap metal. After a couple of years the company decided to quit the business. The County paid the contractor, with out inspecting the site, of course. The State Deptartment of Transportation was owed rent on the land when Masterworks fled the island. What the County found on its hands was a fenced yard full of un-processed junk. One of the senior officials in the Public Works Deptartment was ordered to clean out the yard and take the trash to the Kekaha Landfill. True to the tradition of this County and, more particularly to the Public Works Deptartment, this senior official (who, by the way, is one of the dozen highest paid employees in our county) took a crew to the site at night, dug a big hole and buried all the trash! Interestingly enough, someone videoed the whole operation and reported it to the State Dept of Health which duly fined the county $35,000. Then Mayor Kusaka, again true to the tradition of Kauai County government operation, did not find anyone accountable for the deed and the fine. Her only explanation to the press at the time was that this was the result of the over-zealous devotion to duty of a county employee. After months of negotiation our County Attorney settled with the State for $12,500 (from our tax money, of course.)

What will happen to the taxpayers’ pockets after this latest incident is reported to the appropriate state and federal authorities is entirely predictable. And the burden on our pockets will not stop at just the fine. When this county did not have a program for getting rid of junk cars, after the Masterworks debacle, it took a front page story on the “Junk Island” in the Wall Street Journal to energize then Mayor Kusaka to “create” a junk car disposal program in 1998 that has since then cost us three to four times as much to get rid of a junk car as other counties pay for. Therefore, steel yourselves. An expensive “White Goods” program will be created first by a consultant for probably $150,000 and then executed by a contract handed to almost certainly the same one who now makes huge sums of money operating the Puhi facility disposing of junk cars. This same contractor, evidently a favorite of the Solid Waste program administrator, has had a (I believe $200,000) contract to come to the Lihue Transfer Station to separate the mountain of mixed trash and take the separated materials either to the Kekaha Landfill or the Puhi Metals Center.

Mel Rapozo was the council member who informed his colleagues at the Thursday meeting that he had looked through the contract and found the requirement for separating the mixed trash. More than that, he went over to the White Elephant and found, not entirely to his surprise, that the contractor was scooping up the unseparated trash and dumping it in trucks, to what destination unknown, as there was nobody at the Transfer Station monitoring the operation. To Mel’s question who, if anyone, from the County was there to monitor the contractor, the Deputy Counter Engineer cum County Attorney deftly answered: “That information will be in the Report.” As a matter of fact, to almost all the questions from the members of the Council during the eight-hour meeting her answer was “That will be in the Report.” This hybrid Deputy County Engineer is so good at making the council members think their questions had been answered, or answered in the way they would like to hear it, that when one council member (not Mel Rapozo) asked, in the course of discussion on what took place at the Lihue Transfer Station in the removal of the mixed trash, she rather firmly answered in the affirmative (to make the Council accept the fiction that trash was separated per contract): “Yes, it is separated.”; then followed in an almost inaudible voice: “At Puhi.”

That effectively diverted attention from Mel Rapozo’s revelation that the contractor was not separating the trash per contract, so the Council did not have to deal with the unpleasant prospect of having to ask more embarrassing questions of the Administration. The public watching Hoike most likely did not hear the whispered words “At Puhi” either.

When I finally got up to testify, after the game-playing between the Council and the Administration was finished, I reiterated Mel’s charge that what took place at the White Elephant was an illegal act by the County over many years. I further charged the Council with absolutely refusing to do anything about this, by repeatedly refusing to authorize an audit of the Solid Waste Operation even after both Gary Hooser two years ago and now Mel Rapozo had asked for this absolutely necessary first step towards the investigation of malfeasance and possibly criminal acts. Mel had looked distressed all along during this long meeting; but my tirade was met with stony silence by his colleagues. Councilman Jimmy Tokioka, chair of the Council Committee on Public Works (of which Solid Waste is a part), did not say one word throughout the long meeting.

In the mean time……the Council will congratulate itself for authorizing a $300,000 consulting job to do another solid waste management plan, when the $150,000 plan bought by Mayor Yukimura ten years ago has never been implemented. The Council will also issue, after possibly spending another $100,000 (at least) for a consultant report, a $300,000 job to the same contractor from Honolulu to “solve” the “white goods” problem just as he has solved the “junk car” problem. There may be a good explanation for this contractor seeming to get all the trashy jobs. I have been told that the way our incompetent people in the Purchasing Office, working from unworkable plans from the Solid Waste office, would write a contract that a truly conscientious contractor would not bid on. The County’s favorite contractor, on the other hand, knows that he would not be held accountable for anything, just as he has not been held accountable for not separating the mixed trash at Lihue right now. Even if he were, somehow, held accountable, he would simply stand up to the County and threaten to go to court or actually let the County take the matter to court. The County would immediately put the whole matter behind closed doors, hire outside attorneys and begin the interminable exercise of spending more and more of the taxpayers’ money. In most of the debacles the public is not aware of what goes on.

Unfortunately, at the Kilauea Gym, the public couldn’t help knowing the problem; hence the 7-year saga that has yet to see the end of the tunnel and the financial bleeding continues on the back of the taxpayers. Since the Kilauea Gym Leaky Roof somehow, after dripping quietly for seven years, got to the Council, the public has had the most unusual opportunity to observe what goes on. At the regular meetings of the Council, which by law is open to the public, what the taxpayers have witnessed this past year has mostly been apologies on behalf of the contractor by some members of the Council, citing how complicated the Kilauea Gym roof structure is, how difficult it has been for the poor contractor to deal with this particular roof, etc, etc; while the messy work in dealing with this pesky problem continues behind closed doors in the guise of Executive Sessions. If you watch the Council’s weekly agenda you will see Executive Session 126 listed almost every week. Some day we may be told the roof is fixed; but we will never know why it took seven or eight years (or longer, since we don’t know anything about progress) to fix a leaky roof. And we will never know how much of our tax dollars – in the hundreds of thousands or dollars – will have gone to “outside counsel.” Our County’s Office of the County Attorney, with six or seven attorneys, runs on a budget of about three quarters of a million a year. My bet is that the bill for “outside counsel” in the Leaky Roof case will equal or exceed the annual budget of our County Attorney’s Office.

Does anyone in either the Administration or the Council care? Not likely, except for Mel Rapozo, the loneliest member in the Council.

The illegal operation with mixed trash on an unprotected area will be reported to the appropriate state and federal authorities. The ensuing flap will temporarily embarrass the County, but will cost us taxpayers money again. Can the taxpayers ever win? Anybody has an answer to that?

Editors Note:Here are some links to more Ray Chaun:
Chuan Politics 2
Chuan Politics 1


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