DOGGED PERSISTENCE: In an absurdist little drama last Wednesday the Kaua`i County Council finally got County Engineer Donald Fujimoto to admit what everyone has known for a long time- the Pono Kai seawall was illegally constructed and there never have been any permits or exemptions for it.
And he came close to acknowledging his Department of Public Works (DPW) attempts to cover it up by refusing to answer questions about it and asking any investigation be done in secret executive session (ES)..
Fujimoto wouldn’t even admit it all until grilled for 15 minutes in a prosecutorial manner by prosecutor-to-be Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho who finally broke him down and forced the admissions.
The revelation of the illegal construction goes back a couple of years to a council session discussing shoreline certifications for the bike path during which experts told the council of the problems with the seawall and during subsequent meetings where the lack of any permits was revealed.
The seawall was constructed after the Hurricane `Iniki which itself took the council weeks to ascertain due to stonewalling and sketchy answers from Fujimoto and other DPW personal who conveniently couldn’t remember how long it had been there.
Finally pre and post hurricane pictures were shown to the council on a slide projector to clear up the 1993 construction date.
Apparently the story is that DPW engineers decided that in all the post hurricane confusion and “emergency permitting” they could construct a seawall to “protect” Pono Kai with no approval whatsoever.
This was done, according to testimony a couple of years ago, despite a 1993 letter from the Army Corps of engineers warning them that it was highly illegal to build the wall.
Fujimoto was not the county engineer at the time of the construction and did not come to that position until the Baptiste administration.
Yet Fujimoto clung to the story saying that it “may have been intentional or unintentional- I’d like to think it was unintentional”, although how the county engineer who routinely processes permits could have unintentionally constructed an illegal sea wall wasn’t clear.
What is clear is that Pono Kai resort had always been worried about it’s proximity to the ocean and wanted the wall, going back years before the hurricane when it tried and failed to build one but especially so after the hurricane battered the place and severely eroded the shoreline.
Fujimoto’s attempt to put the genie back in the bottle continued with him trying to cover-up the information even as the meeting began.
He started by refusing to talk about it at all in open session- after his request last month for an ES was turned down by Public Works Committee Chair Mel Rapozo- by saying he want to “wait for the EA (environmental assessment) to discuss it”.
An EA is currently being conducted by DPW to determine what the environmental impacts of any action on the sea wall would be
Previously Fujimoto tried to blow smoke and cast the usual fog machine the PWD has been famous for since well before his tenure.
He has claimed that the wall was legal under various erroneous propositions and obfuscations, first saying there were permits then when asked to produce them saying he had an exemption due to the governor’s emergency declaration after the hurricane, neither of which was true.
After badgering he finally admitted that at some point he spoke to Sam Lemmo at the State DLNR who told him it was possible someone had thought there might have been an exemption at the time.
Still Fujimoto refused at first to admit the sea wall was illegally constructed in hopes that it would be able to be repaired.
Under the federal law, as well as a “zero tolerance” for un-permitted construction by the state and county, the sea wall would have to be removed although there could be an exemption federally if the damage of removing it would be greater than leaving it in place..
The sea wall is currently a public nuisance and in horribly dilapidated condition and according to what UH experts Dolan Ebersole and Chip Fletcher told the council is making a mess of the whole Kapa`a shoreline.
Both told the council and Fujimoto two years ago that reconstructing an illegal sea wall was not legal under any circumstances. Yet Fujimoto continues to conduct an EA to fix the wall.
Whether the best scientific path is to remove it, rebuild it or leave it alone is a question no one so far has been able to determine.
Fujimoto adamantly maintained that the EA would answer all the legal questions even though everyone knew it was illegal, at first saying “I can’t say if it was legal or illegal”
But despite repeats of this lies Iseri persisted and finally got the truth out of Fujimoto.
She reviewed Fujimoto’s actions and words in claiming there was a permit and then that they didn’t need one and then that they were going to get an “after the fact” one, before she finally asked “You have no evidence to show this wall is legal?”
Fujimoto finally said “That’s correct.” though still maintaining the EA will address that.
Then Iseri focused in on the EA-legalities claim asking “So the EA will look into all the illegalities?”
Fujimoto said “Yes- it will address the impacts”.
After a lot of back and forth finally, after maintaining more than a half a dozen times in direct answers to direct questions that the EA would look a legal questions Fujimoto admitted it wouldn’t and that the County Attorney will address those.
“I stand corrected” he finally said.
What was astonishing was that a couple of months or so ago when being questioned on the sea wall Fujimoto refused to answer the questions in open session asking the council to place the matter on the their executive session agenda
“Speaking to the County Engineer about DPW’s illegal actions” is not on the list of Sunshine Law exemptions to the open meeting requirements,.
This was despite the fact that about two years ago it was widely discussed by the council and they learned in public session of not just the illegal nature of the wall but of the warning letters from the Army Corps of Engineers saying basically “don’t you dare”..
Councilman Ron Kochi was somewhat bemused by Fujimoto shaking his head and saying “you can’t unring the bell” and headscratchingly pondering what Fujimoto thought he was trying to do.
Finally Chair Rapozo summed it up -somewhat haltingly- by saying “It’s no secret that the wall is illegal. I shouldn’t say illegal- it’s un-permitted”, drawing derisive laughter from those gathered.
Believe it or not the council committee concluded it’s session by making plans to take the public knowledge of the illegal wall into executive session to figure out if Kaua`i County will have to repay the state and possibly the feds who financed the project on Kaua`i County’s assurance that they had the permits or an exemption.
Iseri repeated several times that we needed to “come clean” and maybe they’d let us off the financial hook.
No plans were made to investigate the Public Works Department to uncover what most suspect was collusion by Pono Kai and some in the DPW to pull a fast one after the hurricane by building an illegal sea wall.
It only took 15 years to figure out what happened. We’ll be lucky if after 15 years more we catch the culprits because, as has happened dozes of times before- most notably after the Pflueger-McCloskey “Developers Gone Wild” sessions- the Council refuses to investigate the DPW, arguably the most corrupt county department in the state.