Crossed Signals

Pro- and anti-development factions fight–sometimes literally–for control of Maui's public-access cable station.

Nobody actually saw who threw the first punch, but all of Maui got to see what followed: two grown men locked in a bear hug, rolling around on the ground.

The combatants were board members of Akaku, Maui’s cable-access TV station, and the arena was the cement sidewalk just outside their offices, so it was only natural that a quick-thinking videographer caught the wrestling match on tape and put it into rotation on the station’s broadcast schedule.

Regardless of who started the fight–both later denied it–it ended up less tussle than takedown. DeGray Vanderbilt, a burly, white-bearded Moloka’i activist, had a clear advantage in bulk and momentum over the slighter and more hesitating board chairman, Myles Inokuma of Kahului, and, as the men lost balance after the initial grab, Vanderbilt came down on top, a fall later examined in slow-motion replay in the subsequent documentary of the event. Afternoon drinkers at the nearby Hang Loose Lounge drifted out to the strip-mall sidewalk to mingle with Akaku staff gathering around the two men, Vanderbilt groping for a headlock and Inokuma pinned to the pavement and squirming.

People on Maui knew the dispute at Akaku was getting ugly, but few had imagined it would come to this. For months, Inokuma and Vanderbilt had been locked on opposite sides of a dispute that started respectfully enough as a debate over station funding, but had progressed into a full-scale battle over Akaku itself, who it should serve and how it should be run.

At the same time, the controversy took on more serious political overtones. With the two sides digging in along partisan lines, the issue became a battleground for pro- and anti-development forces on Maui and across the state. The fistfight was one brief, explosive episode of that conflict: Inokuma, a political insider who served as executive assistant to former Maui Mayor James "Kimo" Apana, versus Vanderbilt, an activist who challenged the political establishment and fought construction projects endorsed by Apana and other county leaders.

"It’s not just a freedom of speech issue," said local political observer Dick Mayer. "It’s a reflection of the single most controversial issue on Maui."

The average viewer flips to Akaku for eclectic, homemade productions like Populist Newz, Maui Hog Chili Cookoff, Shhrred Rippors and Paintball 2003 Moloka’i Style. Local politics wonks love its separate civics channel, tuning in for hour after hour of County Council hearings, political manifestos and live, call-in Q-and-A’s with county officials. An ingenious third channel, XTV, is programmed by viewers at home who select shows online and choose a time for them to be broadcast.

The only public-access outlet on an island with no regular TV news coverage and where four out of five newspapers are owned by the same Mainland corporation, Akaku drew a passionate defense from local videographers and activists, who felt they were fighting for the station’s independence. But Inokuma and his supporters had begun to question whether a ragtag crowd of largely left-leaning producers were really the best people to decide how to spend around $800,000 in public funds.

video footage of the brawl

Joined by other board members tied to business and politics, including treasurer Sharon Courter (a local CPA), and secretary Sarajean Tokunaga (a Democratic Party organizer), Inokuma’s group was backed behind the scenes by the local business community, especially developer Everett Dowling, a former University of Hawai’i regent, whose firm has built a number of public schools. They felt the station’s money was being monopolized. Gathered from fees paid by Hawai’i cable subscribers, the funding was officially for "public-access, educational and government" programming. While the law didn’t say what counted as "educational," Inokuma’s group argued that a portion of the funding should go to Maui Community College and public schools for broadcasting classes and video-based, distance-learning programs.

"[Public access] is well taken care of, in my opinion," Courter says. "Education and government have been left out."

On the other side was a group of board members, led by vice-chairman Jay April, a documentary filmmaker, largely made up of Akaku producers. This group, supported by local activists including Vanderbilt, felt the station was under attack by Dowling and others who were angry over anti-development shows. They argued that Akaku’s programming, including its work with youth groups, was already "educational," and that the plan to give funds to schools was just an attempt to gut the station. They wanted business and political groups to butt out, and for Akaku to keep all the money.

"Power and influence," April says. "It had nothing to do with education."

The long-simmering disagreement heated up in January, when twin bills were introduced at the Hawai’i state Legislature that would have forcibly diverted two-thirds of Akaku’s funding to local schools and county government. Under pressure, the board voted to authorize a deal that would give 25 percent of funding to the school groups. The flare-up appeared to be over, until April’s faction tried to undo the contract a month later, saying Inokuma had signed off on changes to the agreement without getting their approval. Blocked from reopening the debate, they were still smarting when, in July, Inokuma led the board in a partisan, 8-to-7 vote to oust Akaku’s popular but outspoken CEO, Sean McLaughlin. It was in this climate of suspicion and resentment that heated words between Inokuma and Vanderbilt ended in humiliating and well-documented hand-to-hand combat on Aug. 19.

A week later, tense and divided, the board gathered at Akaku’s studios for a meeting that began with a blessing from a Hawaiian priest, who prayed for harmony and urged the two groups to put aside their differences. Dozens of producers and Akaku die-hards gathered around monitors set up on the sidewalk outside to watch the proceedings. But April’s group had come determined and prepared to take back control of the station, and they struck first at Inokuma.

"Mr. Chair, you are conducting this meeting, and there are questions whether it is appropriate for you to conduct it, because you engaged in a bout of physical violence with another board member," began board member Benita Brazier. A cheer went up among the producers gathered outside.

Inokuma tried to deflect the criticism. "I’m gonna state that there was an incident that took place between a board member and myself, and, as far as I’m concerned, the issue is over and done with," he said. "I think we have to move on at this point."

April’s faction turned on three Inokuma supporters, Sadao Yanagi of the Department of Education, Maui Contractors Association president Charles Jencks and former Maui Chamber of Commerce president Lynne Woods. Citing Akaku’s bylaws–section 6.9, to be exact–they argued that Yanagi, Jencks and Woods had not been appointed according to the rules, and that they shouldn’t be considered valid board members or allowed to vote. In addition, under the standards of parliamentary procedure, the board’s chairman couldn’t vote except to make or break a tie, they argued. From outside came another chorus of cheers.

In a roll call on the motion to remove Inokuma, April’s group acted quickly to enforce the rules now in their arsenal. Inokuma’s attempt to cast a vote supporting his own authority was quashed. "There is no tie, and the chairman is not entitled to vote and you are out of order in voting," said board member and Akaku producer Nancy Lee Potter.

"Where does it say that?" he challenged.

"Sections 4 and 44 of Robert’s Rules of Order 2002," Potter replied, as she held open the marked pages to the embattled chairman.

As Inokuma’s backers watched their majority erode in stunned disbelief, the new vote came down 7-to-5 against them. In unison and without another word, they pushed back their chairs, stuffed notepads, cell phones and Palm Pilots into briefcases and walked out in protest. Even from the inner chamber of Akaku’s studio, its walls dampened by sound-proofing foam, the remaining board members could hear a muted wave of boos and jeers as Inokuma and his supporters left the building and hurried to their cars.

The coup d’etat left April’s group and Akaku’s producers elated and triumphant. They went on to vote unanimously to fire the board’s attorney, repudiate the education funding agreement and reinstate McLaughlin. But in the weeks that followed, it became clear the station’s future would be far from certain. McLaughlin declined the invitation to return, and Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs director Mark Recktenwald, who appoints the Akaku board and administers the agency’s contract with the state, said he was deeply concerned about what had happened and would consider intervening, possibly by removing some or all board members.

With two groups claiming authority over Akaku, some station operations have come to a near standstill. First Hawaiian Bank, saying it was unsure who had authorization to access station accounts, restricted station managers to withdrawals of $5,000 or less. The board under April’s leadership has since sued the bank, asking for a court judgment recognizing its legitimacy.

Local watchdog Dick Mayer cautioned that there are still so many unresolved issues at Akaku that it’s impossible to predict what the long-term effect of the battle will be on viewers and producers. The board’s membership could change, and it’s still unknown who will succeed McLaughlin in leading the organization through its difficulties.

"A lot will depend on that individual and how they handle it," he says.

As the dispute has dragged on, the Maui community has been alternately fascinated and weary of it. Letter writers to The Maui News have called it a "circus" and a "soap opera," and Maui political maven Yuki Lei Sugimura says the controversy will likely taint Akaku’s reputation in the community and have a lasting impact on the way people perceive the station and its programming.

"It’s drawing attention to the organization in a negative way, and it puts a veil on it in terms of credibility in general," she says.

It remains to be seen whether viewers will be less likely to watch or trust the station, which is providing one of the only outlets for local TV coverage and independent voices, but that would be a serious consequence, Mayer says. "We’re a city of 150,000 in Maui County now, and, given the changes taking place on the island, we need a strong place for discussion, and Akaku is providing it."

For many, the Akaku dispute has moved beyond the issues to become a more personal feud, with no apparent means of easy resolution.

"We’re at a point where it looks like there’s a lot of egos involved," Sugimura observes. "We’re missing the point of why everybody started out on this journey in the first place."