Liquor control executives deny culture of retaliation, calling allegations ‘baseless’

"I do think that an additional oversight would just cause addition problems."
Published: Oct. 5, 2022 at 9:07 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 6, 2022 at 4:26 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Honolulu Liquor Commission was accused of ignoring a culture of retaliation Wednesday as the City Council called on the commission to find ways to restore the public trust.

The commission has been accused of discrimination against LGBTQ businesses and retaliation against others who complained about liquor inspectors.

Commission’s interim Chair Malama Minn defended the agency.

“I found that it’s just a very small handful of people that are not happy with the commission and for a number of different reasons most of them being personal in nature and I don’t believe that constitutes the public,” Minn said, gesturing air quotes when she said the word “public.”

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Minn says there are so few complaints about inspectors they only need a part time, on-call investigator.

But Robbie Baldwin, owner of Scarlet Nightclub, said Minn’s testimony was “preposterous.”

“The reason that no one’s willing to speak on the record is because of their crazy retaliation,” Baldwin said. “They are just presenting a picture that is completely untrue.”

Windward Councilmember Esther Kiaaina, who introduced the resolution with Chairperson Tommy Waters, said she had personally heard from restaurant and bar owners who feared retaliation.

“This fear that restaurant and bar owners have is that if they ever say anything that they are going to be harassed or retaliated against and I want you to understand that fear is real,” Kiaaina said.

She said having only a part-time investigator for complaints was “completely unacceptable.”

Minn called allegations of bar owners “baseless” and that more investigations would hurt morale.

“I do think that an additional oversight would just cause addition problems and would create friction within the agency that we don’t need right now or ever,” Minn said.

The acting administrator of the agency, Anna Hirai, was less vigorous in her defense.

But she explained that in recent months the commission lost its chair, chief inspector and top administrator. She said lack of training, low salaries and union contracts that limit advancement create a revolving door.

She also said 42%t of staff positions are vacant despite the issues being apparent for years.

“Obviously we are still at where we’ve been forever,” Hirai conceded.

City Managing Director Mike Formby pointed to the recent appointment of businessman and civil rights advocate Jeffrey Hong, and said the administration believed a strong commission was the best way to move the agency forward.

The council unanimously approved the resolution, calling on the commission and mayor’s administration to take action to restore public trust in the troubled agency.