Ethics Board dodges ethics complaint against itself

HILO — Two 2016 ethics complaints against the county Building Division have resurfaced in a complaint about the procedures of the Board of Ethics itself.

The board Tuesday was able to forestall a formal complaint against itself by inviting the complainant in for a discussion of board policies and procedures. Board members seemed favorable to making changes at a future meeting as part of a thorough overhaul.

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But Rob Tucker, a Puna prefab structure builder, said he reserved his right to file a petition if the board’s rules aren’t changed.

There is no precedent for an ethics complaint against the Ethics Board itself, said Deputy Corporation Counsel J Yoshimoto. It’s not known who would hear a complaint if the majority of the members recused themselves because of a conflict of interest.

Tucker, owner of Modular Farm Buildings, first filed the ethics complaints against officials in the Building Division for what he saw as preferential treatment for some permit applicants while his permit applications languished in the system.

His ethics complaints, with his name blacked out, were forwarded to the Building Division for review. The division, with county-provided legal counsel, drafted a response that was circulated only to the board.

Yoshimoto said confidentiality rules prohibited Tucker from getting a copy of the response until it came before the board.

Tucker saw the response for the first time when he appeared before the Ethics Board to discuss his petition. The board subsequently dismissed both complaints based on a lack of an alleged violation.

Receiving the response with no time to read through it, Tucker said Tuesday, denied him his basic rights of due process and put him at a disadvantage against the county and its legal counsel.

“Discovery is a pretty basic function for preparing for a hearing,” Tucker said. “That lack of discovery left me poorly prepared to proceed.”

Tucker disputed some of the county’s responses.

“This person gets waved right through, and other people get 44 hurdles to jump over,” Tucker characterized the permit process.

His comment that employees don’t always tell the truth drew a response from Plans Examining Manager Neil Erickson.

“I would like to believe we are not trying to deceive people,” Erickson told the board.

Tucker said he was also denied the right to cross-examine the county officials.

“These two procedural errors left me kind of bound and tied and tossed to the sidelines,” he told the board.

“That’s not an examination of the facts,” he said, referring to the board’s duties.

Tucker said he and the Building Division have since worked out their differences, so he doesn’t see a need to revisit the specific issues in the original complaints.

The board has already started a review of its rules and procedures, and board members seemed favorable to changing the particular areas of Tucker’s concerns.

“It’s great timing with us going over our rules and procedures,” said member Ken Goodenow. “The more transparency, the better. Everybody’s informed and that to me is a plus.”

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Chairwoman Ku Kahakalau agreed.

“There is a need to review and update and change the rules if they’re not working for the public,” she said. “This is not about us. It’s about the public.”

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