By Anthony Pignataro
There’s a firestorm of controversy engulfing the Wailuku Main Street Association these days. The nonprofit organization may have lasted 26 years–over the last decade alone it’s consumed more than $2 million of county tax money–but there are now serious questions whether it will survive deputy Attorney General Hugh Jones’ allegations of mismanagement, malfeasance and even “illegal” activity.
For most people, this must be a shock. For more than a quarter century, the WMSA–personified by Jocelyn Perreira, its colorful, powerful executive director for nearly the entire time–has been one of the most visible non-government forces in Maui. Like no other organization, WMSA was a leading force driving Maui to keep its small town feel.
But a few years ago, say former WMSA board members and officials with the County of Maui, the organization began to disintegrate into factions. For Sam Clark, who spent much of 2011 as chairman of the WMSA board of directors, nothing exemplifies that more than the May 2011 meeting he and Perreira had with Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa and county Planning Director Will Spence in Arakawa’s ninth floor office.
“That meeting really opened my eyes,” Clark said.
They were discussing county requests for more information about what WMSA was actually doing with the $243,000 or so in tax money the organization got every year, which provided nearly all of its funding. According to Clark, Perreira soon exploded into a tirade.
“She chewed up Will Spence and [his deputy] Michele Chouteau, associating them with the previous administration,” Clark recalled. “She went off on the Planning Department for 45 minutes. It was pretty bad.”
Eventually, Clark said, Arakawa tired of it. “If you don’t shut up,” Arakawa told Perreira, according to Clark, “I’m leaving right now.”
Perreira refused to comment at all for this story, Spence said he couldn’t comment on the WMSA situation and a spokesman for Arakawa said simply, “no comment” when asked about the meeting. But the exchange–which two other sources familiar with the encounter confirmed to MauiTime–is an extraordinary glimpse into Perreira’s mind. Here she was, insulting and haranguing the very same county officials who she wanted to give her nearly a quarter million dollars.
Clark said he gained control of the meeting for “about half a sentence,” only to lose the floor to Perreira again, who once again began blasting the county for daring to question her or her organization.
After the meeting, Clark said, he reamed Perreira outside–so much so, he said, that she began to cry. “Maybe you ought to look for a new ED,” she said, according to Clark.
“She was like that,” Clark said. “After the meeting, she was apologetic. But after that weekend, she was the bear again. The softening was over. She ran through three emotions all the time: belligerent, apologetic and then a complete denial that she had done anything wrong.”
Clark, citing Perreira’s complete unwillingness to provide him various documents or information–including a copy of the organization’s own bylaws–resigned from the WMSA board that November. In his Aug. 30 report on WMSA (which came in the form of an extremely readable letter to WMSA attorney Kevin Jenkins), Deputy Attorney General Jones called for the WMSA board to “terminate” Perreira immediately. If his office doesn’t get a great deal more information very soon, sources close to the investigation say, WMSA may soon simply cease to exist.
Explaining why WMSA, one of the best-connected organizations in Maui history, went from golden child of the County of Maui–an entire generation of County Councils never, ever questioned their grant requests, which added up to $2.2 million over the last decade alone–to the subject of a blistering Hawaii Attorney General report that alleged a dizzying array of troubles including, but not limited to, mismanagement of county tax money, multiple violations of its own bylaws and even making a political contribution that is not only illegal but could imperil the organization’s non-profit tax status is not an easy question.
The only thing that is clear is that Tom Cannon, WMSA’s current board chairman, has loudly and fervently denied all the wrongdoing alleged by the attorney general. In fact, Cannon insisted that Jones “stole” property from WMSA during his investigation:
“AG Jones has refused to respond to repeated requests from our attorney to explain why he is in possession of WMSA property not included in his subpoena (but used in his interrogation of our Executive Director) that was STOLEN from WMSA’s office and reported stolen to the Maui Police Department (ref.: MPD No. 12-027312),” Cannon wrote. “We want these stolen materials returned immediately and have asked for them repeatedly. How can a public official use stolen property without consequence, then when questioned, retaliate with his baseless negative letter. This is abuse of power.”
According to Jones, the “stolen” property was a copy of the WMSA bylaws, which he said was obtained through his office’s subpoena.
That part of Cannon’s defense may be comedic, but there was nothing remotely funny about his defense of Perreira.
“Most egregious in AG Jones’ letter is his criticism of our Executive Director (ED) who has been an outstanding WMSA employee for 26-plus years,” Cannon wrote in an “initial response” to AG Jones’ letter on Sept. 4 (there is no word on when his formal response to Jones will be available). “It is highly unlikely that we could find a qualified successor to our ED… She is a 4th generation Mauian who has a small business background including shopping center management, real estate, small business ownership, and extensive community leadership experience. She was president of the Maui County Council of Community Associations, a leader in the Decision Maui process, a Community Plan Advisory Committee Member, a Maui Redevelopment Agency Commissioner, and has participated in several issue-oriented Mayoral & Council Task Force groups dealing with Smart Growth, Open Space, Technology, Visitor Initiatives, and the Iao Theater Preservation & Reuse effort.”
Cannon went on (and on), calling her “irreplaceable” and even became vulgar, insisting that Perreira “is honest and capable of taking an incredible ration of shit to protect our local community, local ways, and local economies.”
Then Cannon added that the WMSA Board “was forced to temporarily lay our ED off (effective soon) due to our lack of sufficient funds,” which–he insisted–“makes AG Jones’ suggestion that we terminate our ED a moot point.”
That “lack of sufficient funds” line is very curious, considering that one of Deputy Attorney General Jones’ findings was that “[a]ll of WMSA’s liquid assets (last publicly reported at $256,000) are not invested but remain deposited in a non interest bearing bank account in excess of FDIC insurance limits contrary to professional advice allegedly given as early as its 2009 fiscal year audit by WMSA’s external auditor.” In fact, WMSA’s current financial situation remains the largest unanswered question of Jones’ investigation.
What’s more, WMSA’s “temporarily” laying off Perreira does in no way negate Jones’ recommendation that the board sack her, since the organization could very easily hire her again in the near future. According to Jones’ findings, Perreira may have sacrificed her organization’s valuable tax-exempt status by signing an official WMSA check for $200 to the Friends of Alan Arakawa (the campaign, a mayoral spokesman said, returned the money). In the world of nonprofit organizations, the Internal Revenue Service’s rule that such groups not engage in politicking is extremely well known. All of these questions add up to an inescapable but brutal truth for WMSA: Jones has not ended his investigation, but in fact, just started it.
County of Maui officials are also increasingly concerned over what WMSA staff has been doing with office equipment, computers and files. “The county Corporation Counsel has questions of its own,” said county communications director Rod Antone.
Mike Foley spent four years as Planning Director during Mayor Arakawa’s first term off office, which ran from 2003 to 2007. During that time, he said, he fought WMSA’s grant requests.
“I tried to eliminate her funding or at least move it away from the Planning Department,” Foley told me. “But she had strong support of the County Council. I could never understand where that support came from.”
Today, the council members are largely keeping mum about the WMSA. “I’m waiting to see their official response,” said Council member Don Couch, “and talk to some of their board members.”
Perreria was one of, if not the, most connected person on Maui. Indeed, a list of various WMSA board members since the organization’s creation reads like a Who’s Who of Maui history: Alexander & Baldwin lobbyist Mercer “Chubby” Vicens, former county Planning Director John Min, Council member Riki Hokama (as well as his father Goro Hokama), former Council member Mike Molina, developer Bill Frampton, former state Senator/current Wailuku Water Co. president Avery Chumbley, Maui Memorial CEO Wesley Lo, former Maui Council member Velma McWayne Santos, planning consultant Chris Hart, former Maui Mayor James “Kimo” Apana, ILWU Local 142 head Willie Kennison and so on.
It’s not merely that Perreira and WMSA were friends to Maui’s political establishment–they were the establishment. In many ways, WMSA took the “small town” nature of its advocacy a little too literally, and did business the way quaint little Mainland towns did a century ago: by schmoozing pols and local officials in backroom meetings. Everything was friendly, but real quiet.
In many respects, it’s amazing the always-aggressive Perreira–whose remarkably detailed Linkedin page says she’s also part-owner of Pugee’s Trucking Co. in Haiku, spent five years as assistant manager of the Azeka Place Shopping Center before taking over the WMSA and once won an award for typing 90 words per minute while a student at St. Anthony’s–got away with it for so long.
“I don’t understand why she had all that support,” Foley said. “But she was always taking credit for projects that she didn’t work on.”
Still, even Foley admits that Perreira and WMSA did achieve some good for Wailuku by helping with the redesign of Market Street parking. “It did improve pedestrian access but the loss of a few parking spaces did bother some businesses,” he said.
For Clark, he also agreed that even in the recent past, Wailuku Main Street Association did do good for the island–he would never have agreed to join the board if he thought otherwise.
“I remember Barto in Makawao,” Clark said, referring to Perreira’s move a few years ago to trim down the proposed Barto Shopping Center that would have completely blown away Makawao’s small town feel. “I liked how she handled that.”
But Clark said that was five or six years ago. These days, WMSA’s work on behalf of Maui’s small towns is far less visible.
“There is little evidence of actual program services by WMSA in the last two years,” Jones wrote in his report. “No WMSA staff has any design or architectural expertise or degrees… and WMSA has not contracted for any such expertise according to documents produced to our office in response to the AG Subpoena despite the fact that the core function of WMSA is to ‘formally’ review construction and development projects. The Executive Director [Perreira] testified that no design professional was contracted to provide services since 2009.”
Jones added in his report that the County of Maui has also lately been asking WMSA for “more information regarding their supposed reviews and consultations,” but “the information has been withheld as being ‘confidential.’” That, Jones reported, “appears to have allowed WMSA to build up a significant reserve of over $250,000 from County/taxpayer funding.”
For most stories like this, the ending would be bleak–filled with gloom about how Maui and Wailuku will survive the loss of such a powerful advocate for smart development. Except this isn’t that kind of story.
The reality is that other organizations have already been moving into the vacuum created by WMSA’s absence. First is the Wailuku Community Association. Though more like a gathering of town merchants than residents, it has most notably spearheaded the First Friday town parties held on Market Street each month.
From 5-9pm on the first Friday of every month, thousands of people gather in Wailuku Town, strolling up and down Market Street between Main and Vineyard (which the police close off to auto traffic), shopping, listening to a variety of live musical acts or sampling a huge array of local foods. In fact, the party has become so successful that the county hired Gilbert & Associates to market three other town parties–Lahaina, Makawao and Paia–each month, though those events have yet to take off like Wailuku’s.
ReWailuku, the other effort, began in early 2012. Run mainly by Erin Wade and David Yamashita–two County of Maui planners–that organization has sought broad community input as part of a true grassroots attempt to return Wailuku to some of the grandeur and importance it used to enjoy.
Following an extended “open house” in the spring when more than 500 residents filled out comment cards and described what they like–and don’t like–about Wailuku, reWailuku is preparing for a series of “Branding Exercises” which will take place from Sept. 18-21. There, at the corner of Market and Main, planners will hold a series of workshops for the general public.
“[These] workshops will provide us with the ideas and vision to steer the branding process,” states the official reWailuku blog (rewailuku.com). “These workshops will be open to invited target markets as well as the general public.” Once completed, the reWailuku planners will present their findings to the Maui Redevelopment Agency in October.
Both efforts have, so far, proven quite popular. In many ways, they represent the future of Wailuku and Maui’s small towns as a whole–a future that, at least for the past few years, has not included the Wailuku Main Street Association.