HILO — Faced with the curious case of a County Council member who refuses to vote or sponsor bills, county legislative leaders want more teeth added to local laws to require elected officials perform to stricter standards.
At issue is Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles, who abruptly announced at an Aug. 21 council meeting she wouldn’t be participating in legislation until county lawyers assure her she won’t be committing war crimes against the Hawaiian Kingdom by doing so. She was instructed she can’t sit at the dais if she’s not going to vote.
Ruggles hasn’t attended council meetings since. And she has no plans to come back, submitting to Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter a letter saying she will miss “all future 2018 council meetings,” Poindexter said Monday.
Poindexter doesn’t think the county charter gives her many options to discipline Ruggles or dock her pay for nonperformance. So, for the council, it’s a matter of waiting until the clock ticks down to Dec. 3, inauguration day.
Honolulu council rules, for example, allow members by a two-thirds vote to censure their colleagues or suspend them without pay for disorderly or contemptuous behavior. Maui County has similar provisions, she said.
Poindexter asked the Charter Commission at its Sept. 14 meeting in Kona to consider charter amendments to give the council more options.
“It’s not going to help the situation right now, but it will help in the future,” Poindexter said. “There is currently no consequences to hold their feet to the fire.”
The council can change its rules at any time by a two-thirds vote, but the rules must adhere to the county charter.
Most of the options available to the public or the council, such as impeachment and recall, would take longer than the remainder of Ruggles’ term. The public also has the option of filing an ethics complaint, but no one has done so.
Poindexter has refused Ruggles’ request to hire a council aide to fill the position recently vacated by one of Ruggles’ two staffers. The committee vice chairwomen have picked up most of the load for the Public Safety and Mass Transit, and Public Works and Parks and Recreation committees.
“I’m not going to fund the office if she’s not going to do any more legislative work,” Poindexter said. “She’s doing the minimal work.”
Ruggles, however, noted that two other members, Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy and Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, chair no committees and most other members chair only one committee.
“The only thing the vice chairs are doing are chairing the meetings and stamping their signature by request for legislation the departments create and submit,” Ruggles said. “My office is still carrying and fulfilling the duty of making reports and signing off of minutes for each of my committees.”
Ruggles is not using her council contingency fund, meaning she will leave an extra $15,000 in the account when her successor, Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, takes over Dec. 3. Council members are scheduled to get $30,000 each this year to spread around their districts, but they must write legislation to do so.
Some of that money had already been committed to constituent groups, including those supporting Native Hawaiian causes, said Nelson Ho, Ruggles’ legislative assistant.
“They were bummed, but they understand why she did it,” Ho said.
Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela sent Ruggles a short letter of assurance, but Ruggles wants a more detailed letter, answering her concerns point-by-point. Kamelamela has no plans to write one.
The public, meanwhile, seems divided. Some are calling for Ruggles to step down and give up her $70,000 annual salary.
“She’s not doing her job and therefore she should not get paid,” said Brenda Ford, a former councilwoman representing South Kona. “She’s not representing her district, therefore she should not be on the council.”
Others praise Ruggles for using her position to raise awareness of what they see as violations of the Hague and Geneva conventions because Hawaii is an occupied state under fraudulent annexation. Even though that’s controlled by international law, it’s a local issue as well, they say.
“I think her position is very solid,” said Kale Gumapac, a Hawaiian activist. “These council members are liable if they ignore it. … She should remain there in order to get the other council people to look at these issues.”
Ruggles is now fielding speaking requests from groups throughout the state, which could raise her political profile higher.
“I am advocating for the rights of my constituents as protected persons, which include Americans, while putting every agent of the U.S. concerning the rights of protected persons on notice,” Ruggles said. “Every action I am taking is diligently in compliance with the laws that dictate my responsibility as a council member.”