Wespac’s Meetings on Maui  Cost Taxpayers Nearly $300,000

Wespac’s Meetings on Maui Cost Taxpayers Nearly $300,000

posted in: February 2019 | 0

At the June 2018 meeting of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, the council was expected to greatly increase the allowable annual catch for several bottomfish species in light of a recent assessment that determined that the Main Hawaiian Islands stock is far healthier than past assessments indicated. The planned Fisher’s Forum event, typically held in the evening after the first day of each council meeting, was slated to focus on “Hawaii’s Bottomfish Story.”

Since most of the state’s commercial bottomfish fishers are based on Maui, it was perhaps understandable that the council would hold its June meeting and a joint standing committee meeting there. (Standing committee members are also council members.)

But why would the council also hold its Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) meeting there? The general public rarely, if ever, attends SSC meetings and the SSC is a large — and, therefore, expensive — body to move around. Even so, for some reason, the council has decided in recent years to start holding its SSC meetings on outer islands when they precede a council meeting that is going to be held abroad. The one before the October 2018 council meeting in Guam and Saipan was held in Hilo, on Hawaii island. The October 2017 SSC meeting held before the council’s meeting in American Samoa was held in Lihue, Kauai. Previous to that, SSC meetings were held at the council’s office in Honolulu.

With regard to the June 2018 meetings, the venue could hardly have been more swanky: the Wailea Beach Resort Marriott, where a basic garden-view guest room in June costs $495 a night for a member of the general public. And that doesn’t include the daily resort fee of $35 for internet, bike rentals, intro scuba, Mai Tai drinks, discounts, and the like.

Discounted room rates are available for government employees, but it’s unclear how much meeting participants paid for their individual rooms. In response to a July 3 Freedom of Information Act request, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provided Environment Hawaii with an invoice, dated July 3, for use of the hotel from June 4 through June 18. The invoice does not itemize any expenses and merely includes a brief summary indicating how much the hotel charged for rooms, meeting space, and miscellaneous expenses.

The June meetings spanned seven days — June 6-8 for the SSC and June 10-13 for the standing committees and council — but the council incurred expenses at the Marriott over 15 days, the invoice suggests. While council staff may have needed a day or two preceding the meetings to prepare for them, it’s unclear what expenses were incurred over the five days following the council meeting’s end and why.

Total room costs paid by Wespac came to $105,418.03. The meeting space cost $41,132.01. Miscellaneous expenses came to $7,334.53. In all, Wespac spent $153,884.57 at the Marriott. Had the meeting been held on Oahu, the SSC would likely have met in the council office, and the council would have met at its usual venue, the Fuller Hall at the Laniakea YWCA, which costs $150/hour to rent. Four full days of council and committee meetings would cost a mere $14,400 at that rate, if charges covered 24 hours a day.

Wespac has not yet provided the names of those whose rooms it paid for or indicated how long they stayed, but the total number of appointed council members, SSC members, Advisory Panel members, and Wespac staffers who attended the meetings, as well as the meeting’s transcriber, is 42.

In addition to the Marriott costs, Wespac paid out $41,001.84 for airfare, $5,696.39 for ground transportation, $26,943.43 in per diem expenses, and just under $34,000 in compensation to appointed council members, SSC, and AP members.

The nine SSC members who were not government employees received compensation. Each of them received $1,500, except for chair James Lynch, who received $2,000. The six council members not employed by the government also were compensated. Each of them received $3,032.50, except for council member Michael Goto, who received $2,426.

Finally, 11 Advisory Panel members attended the Maui meeting, even though no Advisory Panel meetings were held on the island. Only AP members Judith Guthertz and Felixberto Reyes, from Guam-CNMI, and Gary Beals, from Hilo, received a stipend of $800 to attend the council meeting.

Together with the $7,603.20 paid to the Rainbow Dining Room in Kahului, where the Fisher’s Forum was held, the council paid a grand total of $269,087.95 for the Maui meetings.

NOAA Expenses

In early October of last year, Environment Hawaii submitted a second FOIA request to NOAA, seeking more detailed information about the Wailea expenses, as well as similar data on the most recently held council and committee meetings in Honolulu, for comparison purposes. The request also included information on travel expenses incurred by Honolulu-based employees with the National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO) and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) who attended the meetings.

In November, NOAA provided a spreadsheet showing some of its PIFSC and PIRO employee travel expenses, as well as sign-in sheets from the meetings.

Nineteen employees from PIRO and PIFSC attended the Maui meetings. Their airfare and ground transportation costs totaled $6,721. Only a handful of them stayed overnight.

Although EH did not ask for room, meal or incidental expenses, the federal per diem rate for Maui is $269 per night for lodging and $160 per day for meals and incidentals. (By comparison, Oahu per diem lodging rates are $177 per night and $138 per day for meals and incidentals.)

Based on those Maui rates, the PIFSC and PIRO employees could have incurred an additional $10,769 as a result of their travel to Maui.

A handful of members of NOAA Fisheries’ Office of General Counsel and Office of Law Enforcement also attended the meetings. At similar rates to the other federal employees, their attendance would have raised total NOAA employee costs to more than $20,000.

Teresa Dawson

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