Concrete questions, crumbling answers: Government officials admit that the rules weren’t followed

Samson Kaala Reiny

EWA—A row of chipped and discolored cement barriers tell the story of an ugly tradition in Hawaii government—one that is in plain sight of the people, and often ignored by administrators.

An investigation into the origins of 34 cement barriers placed at Oneula Park in Ewa Beach last September reveals a series of governmental missteps and silence from public officials.

The commotion began on Saturday, September 27, 2009, when Kurt Favella, who is both president of the Ewa Beach Lion’s Club and chair of the Ewa Neighborhood Board, and George Grace, owner of Save Oahu’s Racetrack (SORT LLC), used tractors to place the old freeway barriers along both the perimeter of the playing field and near entrances to the shoreline at Oneula. Volunteers from both organizations, SORT LLC and the Ewa Beach Lion’s Club, arrived to help. SORT LLC had donated the barriers and their time that day at the request of Favella.

The barriers were placed there to prevent off-road trucks from driving onto the park grounds and ruining the landscape, volunteers said.

According to State Representative Kymberly Pine, several who were at the beach called to complain about not being notified in advance of the heavy hauling and disruption. “The surfers and the fishermen were very upset,” Pine said.

At the Ewa Neighborhood Board meeting on October 8, 2009, members of the community arrived to complain about the placement of the barriers and the lack of prior notice given to beachgoers, according to the meeting minutes.

Mitchell Tynanes, both a board member and a member of the Ewa Beach Lion’s Club, helped with the placement of the barriers. Tynanes responded by saying that they were placed there with cooperation between the City and County of Honolulu’s Parks and Recreation Department, the Ewa Weed and Seed chapter, a crime-fighting program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Honolulu Police Department.

According to Celeste Lacuesta, a member of the Ewa Neighborhood Board, she and other board members had intended to discuss the barriers at the November meeting. They wanted to discuss why the board wasn’t notified of the barriers, question where they came from, and whether having them was even a good idea for the community. 

“There are all these metal rods sticking out,” Lacuesta said. “And what if some kid falls off the barriers or something?  Who’s liable?”

“They’re an eyesore,” said Representative Pine, who sent a letter in May requesting that the barriers be removed.

Favella defended the safety of the barriers, stating that all metal rods were removed and that there was ample space made between certain barriers so that people could walk into the field.

Whatever the case, Lacuesta claims Favella purposefully left it off the agenda for the next few months.

According to the November 12 minutes, the only mention of the barriers was by Ross Tanimoto, a representative for former Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who, in response to questions from the board, stated that the beach cleanup was a joint effort between the Department of Parks and Recreation and the community. 

Favella, as then-chair of the board, admits to not putting the issue on the agenda in November, but he says it’s only because the board was already behind schedule with time-sensitive issues. He also said it was because he felt Tanimoto resolved the issue at the November meeting and that no further discussion was necessary in December. 

The City response

At the January board meeting, the barriers did make the agenda, but there were fewer than the minimum number of board members present to act on anything. Favella stepped down as chair in January due to intense infighting among the board, and Mitch Tynanes became the acting board chair.

At this point, Lacuesta says she didn’t push the agenda at the board meetings anymore. She instead approached Councilman Todd Apo about it, and he forwarded her a copy of the gift resolution for the barriers that the City was going to vote to accept in May. 

In May, the Council had received the gift resolution and discussed their acceptance. Lacuesta appeared and testified that she had done some research and argued that the Grace’s did not own the barriers: The State Department of Transportation had wrongfully given them away to SORT LLC.

Lester Chang, director of the Parks and Recreation, said that it was not normal procedure for the department to ask for ownership documents on gifts, but in this case, it made sense to look into the matter before the City officially accepted them.

Councilman Romy Cachola questioned Chang’s initial judgment, stating that placing barriers of unknown ownership into a City park before the Council approved of them could pose liability issues.

Chang responded that the greater liability lies with the trucks that frequently knock down the poles and chains that protect the park so they can perform “donuts” on the field. Blocking vehicular entrance to the park was a pressing concern that was solved by the barriers, Chang said. 

The Council voted to defer the matter to the June meeting. 

Lacuesta, Favella, George and wife Jeanette Grace, and other interested parties attended the June City Council meeting. The Council announced that it decided to give Parks and Recreation two months to find the proper ownership documents for the barriers.

A member of the Lion’s Club then testified that the barriers were good for the community because the grass was now growing again and that many more children were using the field because vehicles could no longer trample over the chains. 

Favella stated that the project was legitimate and was done in collaboration with the Weed and Seed and the HPD. 

Jeanette Grace defended her husband’s ownership of the barriers, stating that in January 2009, Stanley Arakaki, an engineer with the State Department of Transportation, had given George Grace of SORT LLC verbal permission to haul away 156 barriers from a storage facility at Waipio so the organization could use them for its racetrack plans at Kalaeloa. 

Lacuesta disagreed with Grace, saying that the transportation department illegally gave the barriers away and that the barriers should be removed. 

An Independent look at the situation

As the City Council meeting is set to convene this Wednesday to discuss the barriers yet again—and with Parks and Recreation having had two months to find ownership—The Hawaii Independent has also looked into the issue. 

For the record, officer Mark Ramos said at the June 10 Ewa Neighborhood Board meeting that, contrary to what Tynanes had stated previously at both the board meeting last October and also to what Favella said at the City Council meeting the day before on June 9, Weed and Seed and the HPD were not involved with the barriers project. Weed and Seed and HPD were only involved in the beautification project that took place the Monday through Friday before the Saturday when barriers were hauled in. They had no knowledge of the barriers being brought in.

“HPD was pretty upset when they heard about the barriers being placed without their knowing,” said Gayle Braceros, director of Ewa Weed and Seed, who confirmed officer Ramos’ statement. But she still supports the barriers and lauds the Lion’s Club’s commitment to the area.

Favella clarified that Weed and Seed and HPD weren’t directly involved with the community’s cleaning day on Saturday. Parks and Recreation and the Lion’s Club worked together exclusively on the barriers Favella then explained. “We were all doing separate things,” he said, “but it was all toward the same goal.”

Favella also conceded that there were no notices posted in advance about bringing in the barriers, contrary to what he stated at the June 8 City Council meeting. But he says that proper safety precautions were taken such as having flaggers for the forklifts and water hoses to prevent dust from flying.

With regards to the ownership of the barriers, Lacuesta gave her supporting documents to The Hawaii Independent.

One of them is a letter dated June 4, 2010, from DOT engineer Stanley Arakaki to Linda Chinn, an administrator with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL)—on whose property SORT LLC rents from. It acknowledges that, on January 13, 2009, SORT had permission to remove up to 200 barriers from the Waipio stockyard on the grounds that they hauled them out themselves with their own equipment. 

Arakaki told The Hawaii Independent that the department has given away old non-compliant barriers to other private entities in the past and that “nothing is wrong with what we’re doing.”

Another of Lacuesta’s documents is an email exchange Lacuesta had with transportation director Brennon Morioka. Lacuesta says to Morioka that, according to her research, the barriers were given without the proper procurement paperwork. She also notes that, because SORT LCC is not a non-profit entity, it would not be eligible to receive State property in the first place.

Morioka replied by email to Lacuesta on June 19, 2010, stating: “We document these barriers as being disposed of and thus it is not a procurement process. The chain of custody is no longer with us and therefore the processes and concerns you list below about liability to the State is not correct.” 

But Morioka changed his answer when he spoke to The Hawaii Independent on August 2. He said that the department is currently processing the necessary procurement work to release liability from the State. When asked why this wasn’t done before the barriers were taken on January 13, 2009, he said, “It probably should have been done already.”

Morioka, however, defended the department’s right to give State property to private entities, saying that administrative rules allow for barter. By allowing SORT LLC to haul away the barriers, the DOT is saving $500 per barrier that it would have to pay in disposal fees. He claims the State is saving money. 

The Hawaii Independent contacted the State Procurement Office and notified director Aaron Fujioka of the situation. On August 4, Fujioka responded through email that the DOT should have obtained prior written approval for the disposal of the barriers from the Chief Procurement Officer (CPO), and thus was in violation of State Administrative Rules regarding disposition by barter.

The DOT will be submitting a violation form to the procurement office with the aim of pursuing corrective action on the matter. This prompted a key follow up question to Fujioka on August 5: Who rightfully owns the barriers? The Hawaii Independent has yet to receive a response.

Jeanette Grace believes that, according to the verbal agreement SORT LLC made with Arakaki in January 2009, SORT owns the barriers. “He [Arakaki] said that if you want them come and get them,” she said. “The agreement was to haul the barriers at our own expense.”

As for Parks and Recreation, The Hawaii Independent found that the department did not follow proper protocol in accepting the barriers. According to guidelines for the City, “gifts may not be expended or used prior to acceptance of the gift by the Council.”

The Hawaii Independent called Parks and Recreation regarding this breach in protocol and was told to email the question. Two emails were sent—one on July 23 and another on July 28. The department never responded.

According to Jeanette Grace, she says she only got a call from the department in May to fill out the gift declaration form. When asked about the $34,000 value she placed on the barriers, which can be used for a tax write-off, she said she was told by the department to place a value. “If those were new barriers,” she said, “they would be worth around $4,000 each.” 

But Grace insists that SORT LLC never intended to profit from the donation. “We didn’t know about any of this paperwork until May,” she said. “We just did it because we’ve known Kurt [Favella] a long time and know he’s a good person.” 

In light of all the controversy, Grace said they’d be more than happy to remove the barriers if they were asked. “But it seems the Parks Department is more than happy to have it,” she said. 

The Hawaii Independent will provide an update after the August 18 City Council meeting.