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Veterans Seek Accountability in Lawsuit

Molokai vets turn to federal court against county, mayor.

With the passing of September’s deadline, the Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans have entered into federal litigation against Maui County and Mayor Charmaine Tavares. The Molokai Veterans filed a 41-page law suit in the Hawaii District Court on Sept. 17 over a delayed building permit for their new center.

The lawsuit lays out the nearly five-year history of obtaining their building permit, and claims first amendment and due process violations, among others. James Fosbinder, the Veterans Maui-based lawyer, said they are asking for a jury trial, but also for an injunctive release – to allow construction to begin as soon as possible.

“Mainly, we’re at a point where we couldn’t get a resolution with county officials,” said Commander Larry Helm, director of the nonprofit veterans group. “These county officials, they work for the public; their job is to help the public, not obstruct.”

Mahina Martin, Tavares’ spokeswoman, did not return calls for comment, but said in a statement, “We have not been served with the lawsuit. However, based on a copy we have seen, we believe this lawsuit makes sensationalized claims.”

Water vs. Fire
The point of contention revolves around the waterline currently in place where the Veterans want to build their nearly 3,000 square foot center, along Wharf Road in Kaunakakai. The Department of Water Supply (DWS) has not signed off on the building permit because the water flow does not meet their standards in case of fire.

The residences and businesses along and around Wharf Road operate on a 4-inch waterline. DWS told the Veterans an 8-inch line would need to be installed before they could sign the permit, at the expense of the Veterans.

The suit alleges that the county, in withholding the permit, is attempting to force individual consumers into paying for waterline repairs.

Tavares said in a separate interview with The Molokai Dispatch she recognizes her authority to override the DWS director’s decision, but that it could open up the door to safety issues.

The Options
In July, when the Veterans traveled to protest on Maui, county officials offered the veterans their building permit – so long as they agreed to a few conditions: the Veterans would have to wait for the county council to change the water flow authority from DWS to the fire department, or they could wait for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to finish its Kaunakakai harbor improvement project, which includes installation of a 12-inch water line. The Veterans would be unable to occupy their center until either issue was resolved, and neither project is estimated to be completed this year.

In addition, as stated in the suit, the Veterans would need to agree to indemnify the county that they, nor another party, could sue the county over this issue.

“It’s particularly vicious, like they’re taunting us, offering to let start if we agreed we wouldn’t sue in the future,” Fosbinder said.

Helm feels the veterans are being discriminated against.

“Why [then] is everyone on the same 4-inch line still operating, if it’s an issue of public safety, tell them to move off the 4-inch line,” he said.

“We shouldn’t be asked to pay for the county waterline, that’s like another tax on me, on the vets.”

Getting Personal
The suit also says the long and frustrating process has caused many of the veterans an increase in their post-traumatic stress disorder. Helm in particular, as stated in the suit, described combat flashbacks and anxiety over the permit process. He also names Tavares in particular as making a threatening phone call to withhold the permit.

Due to the sensitive nature of the Veterans’ issues, Fosbinder said they are also seeking damages for emotional distress. He called the entire process “heartbreaking.”

“The damages will increase every day they wrongly allow [the vets] to not start construction,” he said.

Helm added this goes beyond the Veterans, but can serve as an example for people who cannot defend themselves.

“This [suit] is the only way it can seem like we can get justice, and so this thing doesn’t happen to anyone else,” he said.

The Veterans are waiting for the judge’s decision on the injunction and if a trial date will be set.

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