Salary Commission finds setting salaries a tricky business

  • Salary Commission hears from Finance Director Deanna Sako and Real Property Tax Administrator Lisa Miura on Sept. 17 in Hilo. Commissioners left to right, George Campbell, Jim Higgins, Milton Pavao, Human Resources Director Bill Brilhante, Deputy Corporation Counsel Amy Self, Chairman High Ono, Vice Chairwoman Florence Ikeda, Harold Dow, Thomas Fratinardo and Nelson Harano. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Among their ranks are a physician, a retired stockbroker, two engineers and a tax manager. Four of the eight are former government employees and one works for a consulting firm doing business with the county.

The volunteer members of the county Salary Commission wield a lot of power, having the final word on salaries for top county officials from the mayor to the County Council to all department heads and deputies. That’s millions of taxpayer dollars.

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The Salary Commission is charged by the county charter to “establish the salaries of all county elected officials and appointed directors and deputy directors of departments and executive agencies so that their total salaries and benefits have a reasonable relationship to the compensation in the public and private sectors.”

The commissioners serve five-year staggered terms and are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the County Council. All current members — two appointed by former Mayor Billy Kenoi and the remainder by Mayor Harry Kim — were approved unanimously by the council. A ninth seat, representing County Council District 9, has not yet been filled.

The Salary Commission has been in the news a lot lately, after approving double-digit pay hikes that raised eyebrows as well as salaries. Commissioners justified the raises, some as high as 30 percent and more, by noting that some positions hadn’t seen raises in almost 10 years, while others went without increases for five.

“If you don’t have a competitive salary, you’re not going to attract the talent you need for these positions,” Commission Chairman Hugh Ono, a Kenoi appointee, said Friday.

The county charter was changed some years back to create the Salary Commission, replacing the former practice of having salaries recommended by the mayor and approved by the council. The goal was to take the politics out of the process.

But the latest round of raises took many in the public aback, sending them to their council representatives with complaints about a lack of transparency in the process. The Salary Commission meetings comply with Sunshine Law notice requirements about the time and location of the meeting, but salary recommendations were usually handed out at the beginning of the meeting and voted on the same day.

In response, Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy sponsored an amendment to the county charter that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. While it won’t reduce the power of the commission, it will require more transparency by adding steps to the process including 30 days public notice, a public hearing and a full report with the rationale for the increases.

“I created a ballot initiative to give more transparency to the people who will foot the bill,” Lee Loy said.

Ono and Lee Loy agree politics can never be taken out of the process, as the process is by necessity in the public arena.

“There’s always going to be this nexus between politics and commissions and boards just because of the framework it’s under,” Lee Loy said. “This is the government process.”

Still, some West Hawaii Today readers have focused on the outspoken Ono, because he works for a company that benefits from county business. As lead engineer and vice president of the consulting group SSFM, Ono has a hand in no-bid six-digit consulting work from the county.

Under state procurement law, the county keeps a list of prequalified professional services companies from which county departments can select consultants for projects. Rather than putting a consulting contract out to bid, a county official, or a county selection panel, can question a few — typically three — companies from the list before selecting one.

On June 22, for example, the county Department of Parks and Recreation awarded SSFM a $235,000 contract to plan and design Waiakea Uka Park New Community Center. Five months earlier, the Salary Commission had approved 30 percent raises for both the Parks and Rec director and deputy director.

Questioned Friday about possible conflicts of interest, Ono said the thought had never occurred to him when he voted on raises. If he thought there was any chance of a conflict of interest, he wouldn’t have voted, he said.

“I’m just one out of eight,” Ono added.

The county code of ethics doesn’t explicitly address actions by boards and commissions, and there’s no indication that there’s a conflict in Ono’s actions. Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

One thing that’s evident — this is not the commission for the thin of skin.

“This is a tough job,” Ono said. “A really tough job. No matter what you do, someone isn’t going to like it.”

Salary Commission members

District 1 Thomas E. Fratinardo, term expires Dec. 31, 2021 appointed by Mayor Harry Kim

Fratinardo retired from the United States Marine Corp as a sergeant after 20 years of active duty. He subsequently worked as a Hawaii Police Department police officer for 13 years and is now a talk show host with a local radio station. Volunteer experience includes assistant coach for the Kamehameha Schools girls’ cross-country team, mentor for the Hawaii Youth Challenge, member of the Laupahoehoe Advisory Council and Hawaii Experimental Tropical Forest, master gardener with the University of Hawaii Master Gardener’s program, Crime Stoppers International, and Paniolo Estates Homeowners Association. Originally from New Jersey, Fratinardo has lived in Hawaii for 31 years.

District 2 Florence K. Ikeda, term expires Dec. 31, 2020, appointed by former Mayor Billy Kenoi

Ikeda is a 60-year resident of Hawaii, retiring in 2005 as a school administrative services assistant from the state Department of Education. She returned to work for the DOE on contract from 2006 to 2009. Her community service includes past membership with the Ke Ana Lahana Public Charter School, past secretary of Kaumana School PTA, and past state president of the Hawaii School Office Services Association.

District 3 Hugh Y. Ono, P. E., term Expires Dec. 31, 2020, appointed by Kenoi

A lifelong resident of Hawaii, Ono is vice president of SSFM International. He is a former Hawaii Island United Way Board Chair and Campaign Chair and a volunteer with the National Council of Examiners for Engineers &Surveyors. He holds a bachelor of science in civil engineering from the University of Hawaii. He was formerly head of the state Department of Transportation Highways Division and district engineer for the Island of Hawaii. He also spent several years as director of the Department of Public Works.

District 4 Milton Pavao, P. E., term expires Dec. 31, 2021, appointed by Kim

Pavao is former manager/chief engineer for the Hawaii County Department of Water Supply where he retired after 39 years of service. Pavao obtained a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Pavao volunteers in several community organizations including assisting with the Hawaiian Paradise Park Community Association and serving as a commissioner on the State Commission on Water Resource Management.

District 5 Dr. Harold Dow, term expires Dec. 31, 2018, appointed by Kim

Dow, a resident of Kurtistown, is a retired emergency room doctor after nearly 39 years in the medical profession. His last employment was at Ka’u Hospital in Pahala where he worked from 1998 until his retirement in 2010. Dow received a bachelor of business administration in finance from the University of Texas, a pre-med degree and family practice residency from Texas Tech University and a medical doctorate from the Autonomous University of Guadalajara. Originally from Texas, Dow has lived in Hawaii for the past 19 years.

District 6 George W. Campbell, term expires Dec. 31, 2022, appointed by Kim

Campbell retired from the University of California system and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, serving in various upper level management capacities. He has extensive experience in human resource management, safety and environmental protection, and cultural sensitivity practices. Campbell received a bachelor of science degree in physics from the University of Nebraska, a master’s in science in radiation biophysics from the University of Kansas and an MBA from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. He currently serves as the president and treasurer for the Hawaiian Ocean View Estate Road Maintenance Corporation, vice president of Ocean View Community Development Corporation, chairman of the Naalehu United Methodist Church Staff Parish Relations Committee, and member of the Methodist Church band. Campbell has been a resident of Hawaii since 2012.

District 7 Nelson H. Harano, term expires Dec. 31, 2022, appointed by Kim

Harano is currently employed as a tax manager for Aloha Business Services Inc. and was a senior tax accountant and small business owner in the state of Washington. While in Seattle, he served as a Boy Scout scoutmaster, director on the board for the Seattle Buddhist Temple and treasurer for the Wisteria View Housing.

District 8 James W. Higgins, term expires Dec. 31, 2019, appointed by Kim

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Higgins retired as a stockbroker after 44 years of employment. He also retired as chairman of the Kona Hospital Foundation after 25 years of service. Originally from Oahu, Higgins has lived on Hawaii Island since 1973. Higgins graduated from Punahou School and obtained a bachelor of science degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania. He also served three years in the U.S. Navy. Prior to his retirement, Higgins volunteered with community events and organizations, including football coach for Konawaena High School, the Rotary Club and the Water Commission.

District 9 Vacant