By Anthony Sommer
Chapter 12: Bryan Baptiste
“The mayor sat there like the Godfather, with his arms folded over his belly, and assured us in no uncertain terms he would make sure the state issued the required permits,” said television producer Eric Westmore.
An NBC Discovery Kids film crew had arrived on Kauai in June 2004 along with containers filled with expensive rented movie equipment and highly-paid technicians already on the clock to shoot the third season of Endurance, a Saturday morning reality show for kids based not very loosely on Survivor.
They believed Mayor Baptiste’s film commissioner, Tiffany Lizama, had obtained the location and all the state permits they need to shoot on Kauai.
They believed wrong.
“When we got here, door after door closed in our faces. There were a lot of promises, but very few were delivered on,” said JD Roth, the show’s creator, producer and host. Ultimately and very quickly, the very resourceful private sector location manager on Kauai, Angela Tillson, who had guided many other producers, found the show a location and obtained its permits.
Lizama, whom Baptiste had inherited from Mayor Kusaka, chose to resign very shortly afterward. Lizama worked directly for Beth Tokioka, Mayor Kusaka’s former press secretary whom Baptiste had appointed Kauai’s economic development director.
[(picture) Bryan Baptiste was the Kauai mayor who forced out both of the KPD chiefs who were brought in by the Police Commission to reform the department. His ethnic cleansing of all of Kauai government (all of his department heads were either born on Kauai or married to an native Kauaian) made him very poular among locals, who make up about 60 percent of the voters. Yet, when he stood for reelection in 2006, he won by only two votes. Baptiste died following heart surgery in June 2008.]
Tokioka previously characterized the film commissioner’s job as “nothing more than being a glorified tour guide.” The Kauai Film Commission’s 2004 Annual Report, written after a long-time entertainment pro, Art Umezu, was hired to replace Lizama, sugar-coated the whole episode this way:
“Despite numerous challenges associated with the production, the resulting show aired September–October 2004 and provided excellent exposure for Kauai, again on a major network.”
But everyone on Kauai knew what a near-train wreck it had been.
It was one of many embarrassments that Baptiste, who didn’t have a clue how to run a county government, caused Kauai.
Baptiste hired a press secretary who had absolutely zero experience with either the media or public relations. But she was the daughter of a long-time friend and she needed the work.
She eventually departed but has been replaced by other political hacks, each less qualified than the one before. It wasn’t so much that Baptiste started out with bad press relations. He started out with no press relations. And it got worse from there.
Baptiste’s first major public relations disaster was his decision to use the KPD (which Baptiste, like Kusaka, believed should be his private army) to evict the homeless from the county beach parks and threaten them with jail if they came back.
This was to keep his local constituents (that 60 percent of the population and the voters on Kauai) happy. Local families make heavy use of the county beach parks on the weekends. They erect elaborate pavilions for shade, haul endless ice chests of beer and food to the public barbecues, and swim and surf, and cast for fish.
They didn’t like the homeless squatters, most of them white (on some beaches white hippies, whom locals detest), as neighbors. So, the mayor kicked them out.
Kauai was the only county in Hawaii without a homeless shelter. The Kauai Humane Society boasted a dog pound that cost $3 million donated mostly by Princeville haoles to build but there was nothing for people without homes. Rich haoles love dogs, not poor people.
The beach parks, obviously, were not designed as homeless shelters, but they gave the homeless places to camp that had electricity, restrooms, showers, running water, and trash collection.
Kauai’s homeless are quite different from the mainland bums begging on street corners. Many—including the hippies who worked as farm laborers—held jobs.
But with the median price of a home well above a half million dollars and a serious lack of inexpensive rental units, they just couldn’t afford a place to live. So they camped on the county beaches.
One of the benefits of Hawaii’s’ gentle climate is that a tent is very adequate shelter all year.
Many of the homeless families had children, and the children attended public schools. The school buses stopped at the beach parks to pick them up every morning and brought them home every afternoon.
The social service agencies that provided basic services from a mobile van knew where to find them.
The homeless camps typically were off in one corner of the park. They were clean—the homeless children policed up trash several times a day—and there was very little, if any, crime. They didn’t panhandle, and they didn’t mingle with other people using the beach parks.
When he announced the eviction of the homeless via press release, Baptiste did not respond to a request for an interview.
His office also did not respond to a request for police reports documenting any criminal activity by the homeless in the parks. In his press release, Baptiste claimed an increase in the amount of crime due to the homeless.
[(picture) Fern Grotto State Park, which underwent a facelift engineered by Mayor Bryan Baptiste’s administration in a method experts say was illegal. The State of Hawaii granted the money to Kauai County with the understanding Kauai would administer the restoration. Kauai then re-granted the money to the Kauai Chamber of Commerce without bothering to tell state officials. Without seeking bids, the Chamber then contracted with one of Baptiste’s best friends and closest political allies to do the work, a blatant violation of state procurement law.]
Baptiste’s claims about the homeless in the parks simply were untrue, said Stephanie Fernandes, homeless and housing director for Kauai Economic Opportunities (KEO), a nonprofit social service agency.
“The police have never come to KEO complaining of any violence or theft in the camping areas. The only complaints I get are from the homeless campers who say local people come to the parks at night, get drunk and try to pick fights with them,” she said.
Baptiste’s eviction of the homeless (the technical excuse was they didn’t have required county camping permits) forced them to move into fallow sugar cane fields with no water or sanitation.
Baptiste promised to build a homeless shelter, and ultimately he sort of did. It was totally inadequate and it took more than three years to complete.
It provides “transitional housing” for 12 families. The estimated number of homeless people on Kauai is more than 600.
Baptiste’s experience in administering a county agency was limited to his brief tenure as the Kusaka-appointed manager of the County Convention Center.
In fact, Baptiste, upon taking the oath of office, turned the task of running the government to Gary Heu, formerly the Kauai manager for the Verizon Telephone Company. Baptiste didn’t even know Heu when he offered him the job. All he knew was the telephones on Kauai usually work and Heu was about to be transferred off of Kauai by Verizon and desperately wanted to stay.
Heu is both a highly talented manager and a good soldier. He never reveals his personal feelings on an issue. When Baptiste tells him to do something, he salutes and follows orders.
Heu stayed down in the engine room kept the wheels and gears of county government churning while Baptiste was up on the bridge pretending to steer the ship, which never seemed to arrive at any port.
In his first 12 months in office, Baptiste did not ask the County Council for a single piece of legislation. The first year, he called only two news conferences, one on his tourism promotion trip to Japan and the other to announce (but not be questioned about) his decision to toss the homeless out of the county parks.
Baptiste’s unveiled fear and loathing of reporters was an acknowledgement of his total inability to articulate his positions on issues. It guaranteed him bad notices.
Contrast that with Baptiste’s contemporary, Mayor Harry Kim of the Big Island (or, more formally: Hawaii County). Kim was a master at the care and feeding of reporters. If a reporter called any department head in Hawaii County, the reporter ended up talking to the mayor. Kim knew the issues and was not afraid to give his views openly.
Harry Kim’s press secretary? A retired reporter for Reuters, one of the world’s premier news services. Baptiste was a walking (more often sitting, actually) public relations nightmare.
“I’m not very good at PR,” he explained. “I’m not going to publish anything in the paper until it’s finished.” And he didn’t finish anything in that first year.
He did, at times, have a self-effacing sense of humor. Unlike Kusaka, who circled the globe seeking out tourists, Baptiste refused to take those taxpayer-funded junkets. “You don’t want to see me hula dance,” he joked.
Baptiste turned his energies to “listening to the people” at an endless series of Town Hall meetings he created all over the island. He said he would only do what the people told him they wanted him to do at those Ka Leo meetings. The problem was that Baptiste purposely never announced a project until it was in the bag.
By then, it was too late for public comment.
In his spare time, Baptiste engaged in what his staff characterized as “deep thinking.”
Bryan Baptiste started his first term in December 2002 with an inaugural address that didn’t give any details of his plan or vision for Kauai County.
He had managed to win election the same way.
Despite six years on the Kauai County Council, during his campaign for mayor, Baptiste made no specific statements on the county’s affordable housing shortage, traffic jams, filled-to-capacity county dump, and soaring property taxes.
After his first 100 days in office, Baptiste issued himself a “report card” and gave himself straight As. The “report card” included progress on only one of the many issues facing Kauai County: “The War on Drugs.” The term was coined 20 years earlier by President Ronald Reagan. Apparently, Baptiste wanted to show he was a “true Republican.”
In fact, Baptiste’s sole achievement in fighting a huge and growing narcotics problem had been to name a committee to select a coordinator for Drug Czar, a job he ultimately gave to an out-of-work political hack.
The “report card” came in the form of a press release from the mayor’s office. He was “not available” for questions after its release.
What Baptiste did best was take care of his political supporters.
Lest no one forget: Rule #1 for the Mayor of Kauai is: “Support your friends, punish your enemies.”
Exhibit A is Lelan Nishek, owner of Kauai Nursery and Landscaping.
According to Baptiste’s very sketchy biography that he uses for campaigns (none is available at all on the Kauai County website), Kauai Nursery was Baptiste’s only private sector employer. Ever.
After Baptiste became mayor, a terrible calamity took place. The new mayor acted with dispatch and certainty by calling in his old pal Nishek to fix it.
County employees who had been collecting and mulching the green waste on Kauai (and on a jungle island there’s an almost unlimited supply of green waste) had broken the county machinery used to grind up all those leaves.
The official version was that the workers failed to sort out the large stones that often are collected with the green waste and thus jammed and eventually broke the machines. Mayor Baptiste immediately declared an “emergency,” which allowed him to award a contract for disposing of green waste without any call for bids. He gave the job to Nishek and Kauai Nursery, saying there was no other company equipped to do the job.
(When Ka Loko Dam burst in 2006 killing seven people, it created an enormous amount of green waste that needed to be collected. The State of Hawaii put the job out for bids and there was no shortage of companies throughout the state willing and capable of doing the job).
Every year, rather than fixing the county equipment and supervising the county workers so they would take the rocks out of the green waste, there was a new “emergency” and Kauai Nursery got a new (and usually higher-priced) no-bid contract.
For each of several years, Nishek was being paid up to $300,000 of taxpayer money and given tons of free shrubbery to make the mulch he then resold at Kauai Nursery. As of 2006, the county has hired a second contractor to process green waste, but only because Nishek couldn’t handle it all. Not because it went out for bids.
But wait. There’s more.
Exhibit B also is Lelan Nishek and Kauai Nursery and Landscaping.
In 2002, the Hawaii Legislature passed a law requiring the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) to spend at least $1 million (of the roughly $60 million it collects annually in taxes on hotel rooms) to repair state parks and trails.
In 2003, without a “needs study” to guide them (although plenty of “needs studies” had been done on the seriously dilapidated parks system in the past), the HTA went to each of Hawaii’s four mayors and allowed each to pick a park or hiking trail on their islands to be the first repaired under the new law.
Bryan Baptiste chose Fern Grotto State Park on the Wailua River.
Fern Grotto is sort of a human-enhanced natural wonder. As the name implies, it is a huge natural grotto, or shallow cavern, 150-feet high, in the side of a limestone cliff right on the riverbank.
In pre-contact (pre-Captain Cook) times, Fern Grotto was used by Hawaiians for ceremonies. The acoustics were close to perfect.
The ferns began growing only after sugar cane was grown on the land above the cave. Plantation workers built a catch basin for storm runoff that became known as Reservoir 21 directly above the cave.
Water from the reservoir percolated through the soil, and a lush growth of maidenhead and Boston ferns 12 to 15 feet long sprouted from the roof of the cavern.
A small waterfall flowing in front of the cave entrance nourished the rich plant life surrounding the entrance to the grotto.
For decades Fern Grotto was a “must see” attraction for visitors. During the 1970s and 1980s, Fern Grotto was visited by 600,000 tourists each year and about 1,000 weddings were conducted there annually.
Eyeing a bountiful revenue flow from what already was state land, Fern Grotto was named a state park.
Two companies, Smith’s Boat Services and Waialeale Boat Tours, paid rent to the state for use of the state marina at the mouth of the Wailua River and for use of Fern Grotto State Park.
Actually, what they were paying for was a shared and exclusive concession to take tourists to Fern Grotto. Although, technically, Fern Grotto as a state park could be visited by anyone with a boat or kayak, in practice it was the private property of the two commercial boat companies and their Native Hawaiian crews.
Mainland haoles tying a small boat or kayak to the landing at Fern Grotto were likely to see it untied and drifting down the stream when they returned from touring the cave.
The grotto’s decline began with Hurricane Iwa in 1982, accelerated in the 1990s by the collapse of Hawaii’s economy and was struck a fatal blow by Hurricane Iniki in 1992. By 2000, all the Hawaii state parks were in serious disrepair.
The same year, the plantation that operated Reservoir 21 went out of business, the flow of water into the cave stopped and the ferns began to die.
Also in 2000, Waialeale Boat Tours stopped paying rent to the state. In 2004, the state seized the company’s boats for back payment.
That left Smith’s Boat Services, a subsidiary of Smith’s Tropical Paradise (which puts on what is arguably the best luau on Kauai at its tropical botanical gardens at the mouth of the Wailua River) as the sole means of transport of tourists to Fern Grotto.
In most places, that’s called a monopoly. But, as tourist attractions go, the dried-up Fern Grotto no longer attracted many tour boat passengers and Smith’s trips up the river almost disappeared.
At this juncture, it’s probably worth noting that the Smith Family and Mayor Kusaka are tight. Very tight.
Walter “Freckles” Smith II, who inherited the company from his father Walter Smith I, is known as “Kauai’s Ambassador of Tourism” and was Kusaka’s constant companion on her globe-straddling, taxpayer-funded jaunts to tourist agent conventions.
And, of course, Mayor Bryan Baptiste and Former Mayor Maryanne Kusaka are very tight as well.
So, here was the business of one of Kusaka’s dearest friends swirling around the financial drain and here was the HTA ready to spend $250,000 to fix a broken tourist attraction for the sole benefit of the same Smith Family.
And here was Mayor Bryan Baptiste, “Son of Kusaka.” What Baptiste did is unique in the annals of the repair of state parks anywhere in the United States.
And totally illegal, according to state procurement officials.
Baptiste, in effect, said to the State Parks Division: “Rather than fixing Fern Grotto yourself, give me the $250,000 in the form of a grant, I’ll toss in $50,000 in in-kind (no actual money) matching and Kauai County will enhance the makeover of Fern Grotto State Park.”
State governments rarely—if ever—turn state funds over to a county for construction work on state property. But, with the promise of enhanced value through county matching money, it sounded like too good a deal to pass up.
So, when the Kauai Economic Planning and Development Office sent the state a grant application for the HTA money to repair Fern Grotto, it seemed like a good idea.
Here’s where it got illegal:
The Kauai Chamber of Commerce presented a grant proposal to the County of Kauai, offering to run the Fern Grotto Rehab Project.
The grant proposal, prepared by Chamber President Mamo Cummings (now the director of community relations of Princeville Corporation, the largest developer on Kauai’s North shore), was word-for-word identical to the grant proposal Kauai County sent the state.
To say this was a done deal from the get-go would be stating the obvious.
The Kauai County Office of Economic Planning and Development took the $250,000 state grant and re-granted it to the Kauai Chamber of Commerce.
The Kauai Chamber of Commerce, without seeking any competitive bids, awarded the contract to Lelan Nishek and Kauai Nursery and Landscaping.
Oh, yeah, and the Chamber was awarded a 10 percent fee—$25,000—for “administering the contract.”
Meanwhile, the ever-loyal-to-whatever-mayor-she-works- for Beth Tokioka had been appointed director of the Kauai Office of Economic Planning and Development.
It didn’t start out as her project. But, once aboard, that didn’t stop her from defending it when a reporter started asking questions about the project.
First, Tokioka said, the Kauai County Council had approved it.
The meeting minutes (this was one of those rare times the Council met outside of executive session, so the minutes were indisputably public) showed the Council had voted to approve the county accepting the grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
The Kauai Chamber of Commerce was listed among many “participants” in the project in a memo given the Council members.
But no one from Tokioka’s office ever told the Council the money would be given to the Chamber so it could award the construction contract without seeking bids or that the Chamber would be paid a $25,000 fee using public funds for administering the project.
Tokioka next insisted both the State Parks Division and the Hawaii Tourism Authority were fully aware of the Chamber’s role and approved it.
The State Parks Division head said in an interview with a reporter he knew nothing about the Chamber of Commerce being involved in the project. Ditto the Hawaii Tourism Authority, after a thorough search of their files on the project.
Tokioka next argued that, by law, the Hawaii Tourism Authority was exempt from the state procurement statutes and regulations, so the project was not required to go out for competitive bids.
According to the head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, only part of what Tokioka said was correct. The Hawaii Tourism Authority itself legally can award no-bid contracts for goods and services that HTA alone will use.
But what Tokioka neglected to mention was money granted by the Hawaii Tourism Authority to other state and county agencies for public works projects still is covered by state procurement law.
Competitive bidding was absolutely, positively required. Tokioka next argued that once the money went to a private non-profit organization like the Chamber, the requirement for competitive bids went away because state law doesn’t cover a private non-profit agency.
Lloyd Unebasami, chief administrative officer of the Hawaii Tourism Authority and former head of all state purchasing, said he had never heard, in Hawaii or elsewhere, of a private non-profit like the Chamber of Commerce using government money to repair a government facility.
Not only was it illegal without going to bid, it was illegal period, he said.
The chief purchasing officers of all four counties— including Kauai—said exactly the same thing.
Tokioka’s next excuse was that since Kauai Nursery was the only company on Kauai capable of doing the work.
An informal survey of the names painted on the doors of construction vehicles on Kauai’s main (and only) highway on any day of any week will show they come from all over Hawaii to do work on Kauai projects. They just throw their gear on a barge and their crews on an airplane, rent some cheap hotel rooms, and go to work.
Maybe in the mayor’s mind only Kauai companies should work on Kauai, but that’s not what the law says and it’s not the reality of construction work in Hawaii.
Tokioka’s last card (and it didn’t trump anything but give her credit for bleeding her last drop of blood for her mayor) was that, if the Chamber didn’t administer the Fern Grotto project, she would have to add a new county employee at taxpayer expense to do it.
But when Tokioka led a press tour of the finished Fern Grotto project in September 2004, Mamo Cummings and the Chamber of Commerce were nowhere in sight. The Chamber wasn’t even mentioned.
Asked to provide paperwork showing the Chamber actually had administered the Fern Grotto restoration (and thus earned its $25,000 fee), Tokioka had to admit no such documentation existed.
All she could provide was Mamo Cumming’s cut-and-paste grant application copied entirely from a county document, the canceled check from the county to the Chamber, and the sole-source contract with Kauai Nursery.
The project had, in fact, been administered by Tokioka’s office after all. No additional county employee had been hired.
The Baptiste shell game appeared again and again through his first term.
He could get County Attorney Lani Nakazawa to opine that whatever he was doing was legal, even if it wasn’t. If you wear the king’s uniform, you shoot the king’s gun. Who was going to challenge him? It was the duty of the press, but they lacked the backbone.
It was the duty of the state attorney general, who had been appointed by a Republican governor and the U.S. attorney, who had been appointed by a Republican president.
Republican prosecutors going after a Republican mayor?
One more Bryan Baptiste war story serves to illustrate just how twisted this administration was.
The voters of Kauai had been paying skyrocketing property taxes for the past four years because of a sudden real estate boom fueled by mainland speculators.
Baptiste took the usual political step: The mayor appointed a committee to study tax reform. The committee issued a report and recommendations. It is still gathering dust on a shelf.
So a group of activists put their own tax reform solution on the ballot.
In November 2004, the voters, by a 2 to 1 margin, approved a County Charter amendment freezing property values for taxation purposes at 1998 levels. Baptiste had promised to govern “by the will of the people.” Listening to the people was what his endless of Ka Leo town hall meetings were all about.
But when the voters overwhelmingly chose to stop his runaway tax increases (400 percent tax hikes for some property owners), Baptiste did a 180-degree turn. In a lawsuit likely unique in the history of the United States, Kauai County sued itself, asking the courts to rule the ballot proposition unconstitutional.
Baptiste asked the courts to order the county to ignore the voter-approved change in the Charter.
By naming herself as the plaintiff and Baptiste as the defendant, County Attorney Lani Nakazawa represented both sides in the dispute.
The theory behind the lawsuit was that the state Constitution vests all budget-making authority (“the power of the purse”) in the legislative bodies of the state and counties.
That is: Only the County Council can approve a budget, and the voters can’t change it (even though they have a right of initiative, referendum and recall in the Kauai County Charter).
But the Constitution does not limit the ability of the people to change tax laws through a Charter amendment. And that was what the voters did.
In “her” lawsuit against the county, Nakazawa argued that the voters, had illegally limited the budget by approving a property valuation rollback. She said that power was reserved exclusively for the County Council.
She asked the court to issue an order prohibiting Baptiste from complying with the Charter amendment.
In most jurisdictions, courts generally rule that the vote of the people trumps most technical or legal flaws in the ballot language. The will of the people was very clear in this vote.
Courts also generally rule that if there are technical or legal flaws in the language of a ballot question, it should be challenged in court before the election, not afterward. Nonetheless, the ever-helpful Judge George Masuoka of the Fifth Circuit Court ruled the ballot item was unconstitutional.
The Hawaii Supreme Court upheld Masuoka. In 2006, Baptiste was reelected for another four-year term by a two votes. “One more than I needed,” Baptiste chuckled afterward.
There is no automatic recount provision that exists in many other states when the margin of victory is so narrow.The Hawaii Supreme Court refused to order a recount because challengers could not give any examples of voting fraud.
A one-vote margin hardly constitutes an overwhelming endorsement of his first four years in office or a popular mandate for the next term.