A Decade of Dispute: Molokai Veterans Go to Federal Court After Maui County Administration Refuses For Years to Approve Their Water Permit So Their Vet Center Can Open

Larry Helm

Larry Helm

BY RICK HAMADA – Molokai war veterans, who have waited nearly a decade to build a clubhouse, have filed a lawsuit in federal court against Maui County and Mayor Charmaine Tavares, citing unjust delays in the permitting process.

“This saga ought not happen to anyone especially veterans,” said Vietnam veteran and Commander Larry Helm, president of the nonprofit group, Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans. “Government needs to be more proficient and efficient…  They ought to be there to help expedite the process, not obstruct.”

The group’s civil lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on September 16, about a month after Helm was assured by the Maui County Council that his group had the green light to break ground on a proposed 3,000 square foot Veterans Center. County officials indeed offered a tentative building permit, but later imposed additional conditions that were not agreeable, Helm says.

“We determined that it was not in our best interest to go with the County’s offer,” said Helm. “When the Mayor and Roy Silva (executive assistant to the Mayor) promised get back to me either in a phone call or in writing by a specified time and they did not,” said Helm. “That is why we are in Federal Court requesting a jury trial.”

Molokai veterans have worked since 2001 to open their community center – they wanted a place where the many veterans on the rural island of 7,200 people could get support from each other and have access to any government veteran programs.

In 2005, Molokai Ranch gifted the non-profit a portion of land on Kaunakakai Place. Then in 2007, the state granted them $250,000 to help make their dream of a Veterans Center come true.

According to the 41-page lawsuit, “Maui County turned the dream into a nightmare … as the Veterans Center was held up by endless roadblocks and Plaintiffs were caught in a web of political manipulation and deceit.”

The lawsuit stresses that the Treasurer of Molokai Veterans, Michael Tancayo, and 44 other members of the organization, died “waiting for the County to approve the Veterans Center, as the Plaintiffs watched in anguish.”

Another passage in the lawsuit says: “Danny A. Mateo, Chair of the Maui County Council, has acknowledged that Molokai Veterans ‘jumped through all the hoops required by Maui County.’ Yet the Vets have been arbitrarily denied approval for the Veterans Center and have been harassed and threatened for protesting. Plaintiffs are bringing this action because all else has failed, and their constitutional rights have been blatantly violated.”

Hawaii Reporter contacted Maui County Communications Director Mahina Martin for a response to the Molokai Veterans civil lawsuit. After an initial response that additional information would be provided, Maui County did not respond to at least five subsequent requests.

Maui County administration headed by Maui County Mayor Charmaine Tavares did publicly express concern that the lawsuit was filed two days before the primary election, in which Tavares was a candidate. She made it through the primary and is embroiled in a spirited race against former Mayor Alan Arakawa.

“As far as timing is concerned, it is interesting that the County is curious about the timing when they had no concern on the length of this fiasco,” Helm says, adding “We’ve been working on the lawsuit for over three weeks and coincidentally it was ready to go at this time.”

Countless delays over zoning, fire protection and water flow issues have caused mounting frustration in the Molokai Community and supporters of the project, resulting in a heated protest and a petition of 1500 signatures in July.

So far, MVCV has spent more than $30,000 on materials and services for the proposed center. Now the Maui Department of Water Supply is requiring them to build a 463-foot extension to an existing 8-inch waterline, which would cost an additional $38,000.

Helm says Maui Fire officials have already deemed the current waterline adequate for fire protection, but county water department officials are in disagreement.

Arakawa, former Maui Mayor and a candidate for mayor in the general election this November, told Hawaii Reporter that this story shows the Tavares administration is in complete disarray since her two departments – water and fire – can’t even get together on something as simple as a water pressure reading.

Tavares also isn’t taking leadership on the issue, he says, and instead is blaming the state for the problem.

“This is a fiasco that should never ever have occurred. The veterans deserve respect. They have sacrificed a great deal and earned that right. It is disrespectful to even have this discussion, when the problems is resolvable so easily,” Arakawa says.

Arakawa adds that none of it makes any sense of at all, especially during an election year. He also questioned why Hawaii Reporter cannot even get a response from this mayor’s administration.

Helm, who has sought the help of Hawaii’s congressional delegation including U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka, D-HI, head of Veterans Affairs, says it is unfortunate that the lawsuit is now the only answer to finding a resolution to the decade-long ordeal.

Plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of damages and demanding a jury trial.

Rick Hamada, a journalist and local talk show host on 830 AM KHVH News Radio, wrote this report for Hawaii Reporter.