Saturday, June 16, 2001

Kauai mayor drives
into a legal ditch
over leased auto

The issue: The Garden Island's
council is being asked to approve
Mayor Maryanne Kusaka's new luxury
sedan after she has already leased it.

When Kauai Mayor Maryanne Kusaka leased a new car at taxpayers' expense, she drove herself down a pot-holed road, veering close to legal guardrails and eventually colliding with the County Council.

That she obtained the luxury vehicle from an auto dealer who once was co-chairman of her election campaign and who was her single largest campaign contributor was itself poor judgment, but Kusaka's actions also scrapped a budgeting process that allowed county agencies flexibility in how they spent their money.

Now the council is being asked to fix the damage Kusaka's car has caused. However, the repair bill may be too steep and the council should steer carefully through the legal traffic.

The mayor's journey has some twisting back roads. It began last year when the council refused a raise for the mayor, who complained that her $3,700 a year auto expense allotment did not cover the cost of driving her own Cadillac on county business. Using the flexibility of the performance-based budgeting powers the council granted her three years ago, Kusaka shifted funds in her own department to pay $15,813 to lease a 2001-model Chrysler 300M for two years.

She did not seek the council's approval, which the county charter requires for multi-year financial obligations. Kusaka contended that a county attorney had ruled the approval unnecessary because the lease payment was made in a lump sum. But the ruling failed to take into account possible maintenance, accident and excess-mileage costs that could extend beyond a year.

The mayor is now asking the council for retroactive approval, but even with that, Kusaka faces other road blocks because she also may have violated state purchasing law by not seeking bids on the lease.

Meanwhile, the county's attempts at government reform also crashed. The council had adopted the performance-based budget process because it tied spending flexibility to accountability. Annoyed at what it viewed as Kusaka's abuse of the program, the council earlier this year rescinded the program, reinstituting a traditional line-item budget.

The council will wait for a determination from the state on the legality of the lease before deciding on the retroactive approval. If it rejects Kusaka's request, the county will likely have to pay a penalty for breaking the lease agreement. However, as a warning signal to others, the council should say no to the mayor.

Public servants should be provided with a safe, reliable vehicle to use in performing their duties and should not have to incur personal expense. If Mayor Kusaka thought her car allowance was inadequate, she should have asked for an increase in that allotment. Instead, she sought a pay raise, based in part on the $16,000 of her own money she said she had had to spend driving her private car on county business. When she shuffled county funds to lease the Chrysler, Kusaka may not have run into the law, but she certainly sideswiped it.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, President

John Flanagan, publisher and editor in chief 529-4748;
Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

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