Commission stands by raises; questions scrutiny

  • Sue Lee Loy

HILO — The county Salary Commission stands by the big raises it doled out to county officials, and this week voted to oppose a charter amendment opening its process to greater public scrutiny.

Commissioner James Higgins called the measure, “the Sunshine Law on steroids.”

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The commission, at a meeting Wednesday, voted unanimously to oppose the charter amendment, giving Chairman Hugh Ono authority to speak to the council on behalf of the commission.

Many commissioners seemed to take the proposal personally, asking what gives the council the right to oversee their work.

“Aren’t we here because they want to keep it out of the political realm?” asked Commissioner Thomas Fratinardo. “There’s no backroom deals going on. Our integrity is above reproach.”

Deputy Corporation Counsel Amy Self cautioned board members not to take Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy’s Bill 98 personally.

“It’s not something you did wrong. In fact, you should be applauded for doing your job,” Self said. “Everything was done in public view.”

The commission in the past three months gave double-digit raises to top county administrators as well as the mayor and County Council members. It based decisions about raises as high as 40 percent on the length of time since the last raise, whether subordinates were making more than their bosses and by comparing salaries with Maui and Oahu.

The raises, which including benefits added more than $1.3 million annually to the budget, have been met with public criticism, especially coming at the same time the mayor and council are mulling a half-cent surcharge on the general excise tax. Salaries come mostly from property tax revenue.

In response, Lee Loy offered the charter amendment that is scheduled to be discussed Tuesday. The council Finance Committee meets at 9 a.m. at the West Hawaii Civic Center, with videoconferencing to Hilo council chambers, the Pahoa and Waimea council offices, old Kohala courthouse and Naalehu state office building.

Lee Loy’s proposed amendment slows down the approval process to provide safeguards for the public by requiring, at least 30 days prior to the approval of any salary adjustment, public notice of the proposals in at least two daily newspapers in the county, a public hearing videoconferenced so both east and west Hawaii residents can participate and a “detailed report” of how the commission reached its recommendations, which would be open for public inspection.

In addition, any proposed increase or decrease of more than 10 percent would be subject to a two-thirds affirmative vote of the entire membership of the commission.

“The Salary Commission is the only commission that directly impacts the county’s operating budget,” Lee Loy said Friday. “This ballot initiative provides a framework for the public to engage with future salary commissions and provide them meaningful comments on increases, similar to the way the council makes adjustments to the real property tax or the fuel tax.”

If approved by the council in three hearings by at least a two-thirds vote of the membership, the measure would proceed to the general election ballot for a public vote.

“I’m looking forward to the discussion with Mr. Ono and other members of the commission, and I trust that whatever emerges can be placed on the ballot for the voters to decide,” Lee Loy added.

Salary Commission meetings are open to the public and notice of the meetings are posted on county bulletin boards and online. But, other than individuals lobbying for specific raises for various departments, there has been little public input in the process.

Recent raise proposals were provided at the commission meeting the same day as the vote, leaving little opportunity for advance notice to the public.

The Corporation Counsel, the top civil attorney, will see a $42,982 raise from $110,244 to $153,226 annually, a 39 percent increase. The prosecuting attorney, an elected position charged with enforcing state and local laws, will get a $39,646 raise from $113,580 to $153,226, a 35 percent increase.

The mayor’s salary increases by $33,000 — 25 percent — to $165,000.

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The County Council chairman will get a 32.8 percent raise to $77,017, and other County Council members will get 34.6 percent more, to $70,008. The county clerk, legislative auditor and other positions also received raises.

The mayor and many top administrators last got raises in 2014, while others haven’t seen a raise in almost 10 years.