Human Resources director sought: Merit Appeals Board votes to open recruitment process

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HILO — The board charged with hiring the county Human Resources director will seek applications from the public, rather than limit its search to current county employees.

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HILO — The board charged with hiring the county Human Resources director will seek applications from the public, rather than limit its search to current county employees.

Still stinging from a negative audit about HR practices and the resignation Sept. 27 of former HR director Sharon Toriano, Merit Appeals Board members stressed at a meeting Wednesday they want everything above-board.

Gabriella Cabanas, who’s worked in the department for 36 years, most of that as head of the Recruitment and Examination Division, agreed the hiring process needs to be squeaky clean. Cabanas emphasized she is not seeking the director’s position.

“This recruitment is of utmost importance. We don’t want any improprieties,” Cabanas said. “We have a good staff … We want the public, we want our employees, to trust what we do. Our credibility is everything.”

The MAB plans to run ads in state newspapers soliciting applications through the end of November. State law requires would-be department directors to have been Hawaii residents for at least one year to qualify for positions.

Under a position description the board approved Wednesday, candidates will be required to have a bachelor’s degree in human resources, public personnel administration, industrial relations or related field and five years experience in a human resource functional area, three of which must be in an administrative capacity. Experience can substitute for the educational degree.

The Merit Appeals Board has used three approaches in hiring the past three HR directors —an open employment solicitation, one limited to county employees and the promotion of the deputy director by a board vote.

Current Deputy Director Bill Brilhante told the board he plans to apply for the position, and he recused himself from further discussion of the vacancy. Cabanas said she would lock down the computer program involved with the director search, so only she could access it.

The Sept. 7 audit report, by Legislative Auditor Bonnie Nims, found numerous problems in how the county selected applicants to be interviewed and how candidates were assessed. Employees who were concerned about the processes kept quiet because they feared retaliation, the audit said.

Toriano is on paid sick leave in her $99,000 annual position until her resignation becomes effective Dec. 31. The board named Brilhante acting director last month.

The audit, which concentrated on a sample of departmental hiring in 2016, listed “questionable hiring practices” and “inappropriate involvement” by the administration in the hiring agency’s choice of qualified candidates.

One of the problems, MAB members said, is a county structure that gives their board power to hire, evaluate and fire the director, but gives the mayor’s office, through the managing director, oversight of the HR director’s actions. The HR director is also a member of the mayor’s cabinet.

In addition, human resource functions are both centralized and decentralized. The seven largest departments have their own HR staff that conducts their own procedures, under the advisement of the central HR Department. The county’s other 14 departments have an accountant or secretary tasked to HR functions in addition to their regular jobs.

“I couldn’t read this without thinking why we’re in this position currently,” said member Luahiwa Namahoe. “It’s asking someone to go into a ring with two arms tied behind their back.”

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Chairwoman Julie Tulang said the director needs to be “the chihuahua at the heels” of administrators seeking shortcuts or having other motives for hiring specific individuals.

“He or she needs to be strong. … Your job is to follow the law,” Tulang said. “Either you’re in sync with the administration and the council or you’re going to be the cheese that stands alone.”