The head of the Honolulu licensing department recused himself from working on short-term rental legislation after conflict of interest issues were filed with the Honolulu Ethics Commission.
Department of Planning and Permits Director Dean Uchida sparked complaints when he helped the city government craft Bill 41, which aims to curb short-term rental businesses on Oahu.
An early version of the bill was hotly rebuffed by rental operators, in part because it would have required condominium owners to essentially convert their units to hotel rooms and pay management fees for the hotel.
Uchida’s wife, Joy Uchida, is an executive at Aqua-Aston Hospitality, which owns more than a dozen condo-hotel properties in Waikiki and stands to benefit from the passage of the legislation. Asked about ethical issues regarding his wife last year, Uchida said he did not view the situation as a conflict of interest.
The Honolulu Ethics Commission received at least one complaint about it late last year. He investigated and shared his findings with the complainant in a March 30 letter, according to a copy obtained by Civil Beat in which the complainant’s name is redacted.
City law prohibits employees from taking “any official action that directly affects a business or matter in which that person has a substantial financial interest.” According to the letter, the commission found there was “insufficient evidence” to prove Uchida had broken the law, but said he should nonetheless withdraw from Bill 41.
Uchida’s duties include preparing zoning ordinances, maps, rules, regulations, and amendments, but it’s the Honolulu Planning Commission that holds hearings and makes recommendations to the City Council, wrote Laurie Wong-Nowinski, deputy executive director of the commission.
“Furthermore, upon review of Dir. Uchida’s Spouse Employment, we conclude that her Spouse’s terms of employment do not depend on whether or not Bill 41 is passed,” Wong-Nowinski wrote. .
“So, director. Uchida has an indirect financial interest in the hospitality industry that does not violate city ethics laws.
However, even the appearance of a conflict of interest could damage the reputation of Uchida and the city, she wrote in an addendum.
Wong-Nowinski recommended that Uchida delegate Bill 41 responsibilities to his staff and “recuse himself from further involvement with great care to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
Following that directive, Uchida filed a statement with the city disclosing a conflict of interest and recused himself, Wong-Nowinski wrote.
Uchida declined to comment on his recusal on Tuesday.
The hotel-related provisions in Bill 41 that caused controversy have since been removed from the legislation, which passed third reading in zoning committee last month.
The bill is expected to be submitted to the full city council at an upcoming meeting.
Short-term rental operator John Lisoway, who said he was one of multiple people who complained about Uchida to the commission, said he disagreed with the ethics advisory.
“He had direct authority over a law that would benefit his wife,” he said. “That in itself is a perceived conflict of interest.”
Even now, Lisoway said there are parts of Bill 41 that he believes give unfair advantages to the hospitality industry. And the legislation specifically allows owners of the Waikiki Sunset and Waikiki Banyan, two Aqua-Aston properties outside of the Waikiki resort area, to operate short-term rentals, Lisoway noted.
“People are starting to get suspicious,” he said. “They distrust politicians, the administration.”