Liquor regulators plot fresh course
The agency looks for a new leader and a way to monitor complaints
The beleaguered Honolulu Liquor Commission is hoping for a fresh start as it searches for a new administrator and adopts a new plan of action that its chairman says will help restore the troubled agency's reputation.
"It's like starting from scratch," Chairman Dennis Enomoto said of the newly adopted plan. "We want a transparent, clean agency."
But while critics laud the commission for making changes, they say continued oversight is needed to make sure the agency doesn't take a step backward.
"I applaud the Liquor Commission, too, for a few good steps in the right direction," City Councilman Charles Djou said. "But there's a lot of work to be done."
Earlier this year, Wallace Weatherwax stepped down as liquor control administrator amid several controversies during his term, including the conviction of eight former liquor inspectors for bribery and a city audit critical of management of the agency.
Weatherwax remains on the commission payroll until the end of the month.
One of the commission's goals in approving its strategic plan is "establishing and maintaining trust by improving Commission oversight of the operations, professionalizing the organization, pursuing public outreach, and partnering with other related agencies," according to the 13-page document.
Enomoto said the plan maps out where the commission is headed.
"We needed common goals and direction," Enomoto said.
During the next year, the commission plans to:
» Hire a new administrator, a process that is already underway. Enomoto said that the earliest an administrator could be on board is January.
» Begin a four-month pilot program for a contracted, outside organization to act as an internal affairs unit to monitor complaints against Liquor Commission staff. A memorandum of agreement is being finalized with AKAL Security, the firm that now employs former Honolulu police Chief Lee Donohue, to take on the task.
» Move to more organized "special operations" investigations -- instead of random inspections -- aimed at behaviors such as underage drinking and illegal sales of alcohol.
» Seek approval of license fee increases.
The fee increase approval may not come easily.
Council Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said she's not satisfied yet that the commission has shown the need for a fee increase and doesn't believe what the semiautonomous agency is proposing provides for sufficient oversight.
"We do want oversight. The formula, it would just be an automatic increase based on their submitted budget and we're very worried about that," Kobayashi said.
Djou also said that approval of fee increases is one of the few methods of oversight the Council has over the commission and he believes that the commission should first begin to practice what it has laid out in its plan.
"It is still another thing to implement and effectuate. Now they've got to actually do it," Djou said.
Kobayashi's committee plans to once again take up the fee increase request at a Wednesday meeting.
But she said she's still uncomfortable with part of the plan.
In particular, she and Djou said, the commission's strategic plan continues to call for liquor investigators to become armed with weapons even after members of the Council and Mayor Mufi Hannemann publicly protested the idea when Weatherwax proposed it earlier.
"The fact that they talk about having guns for their inspectors and having fee increases -- it makes the public wonder how the money is going to be spent and that's why public hearings are so important," Kobayashi said. "We certainly don't want them to have guns."
City spokesman Bill Brennan said the mayor continues to oppose liquor investigators being armed.
Enomoto said that the wording of the weapons reference was incorrect because the commission wants to merely study the idea, not implement it.
"There is a certain amount of danger out there," Enomoto said.
Djou said he has asked the commission for more specifics on when liquor inspectors were placed in harm's way.
"If it's truly dangerous, how many times have they actually been threatened?" Djou said.
Djou said if the commission would like more police powers, maybe it's best to turn over its functions to the police.
"The more they become like a police officer, why not hand this operation over to (Honolulu police)," Djou said.
Acting Administrator Anna Hirai said the commission staff is looking forward to putting the past controversies in behind them.
"This is really a resilient staff and we have jobs to do," Hirai said.