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Ethics Board seeks teeth: Rule changes would allow board to impose fines, sanctions

Updated: 
October 24, 2017 - 12:05am

HILO — The county Board of Ethics is looking for a way to add teeth to what has historically been a paper tiger, almost a decade after the County Council gave it authority to fine public officials who violate the ethics code.

The board is also considering revamping its 27-year-old rules to allow the staff, or perhaps staff with approval of the chairman, to weed out public complaints deemed frivolous or outside the board’s jurisdiction before they come up before the board.

And, it’s mulling sanctions against individuals who file frivolous complaints. Handling frivolous complaints is especially important during election years, when an ethics complaint may be filed solely to besmirch a candidate’s reputation, members said.

A January 2008 ordinance sponsored by former Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong and signed by Mayor Harry Kim gave the board authority to fine top public officials, including the mayor, council members and department heads and deputies, up to $1,000 per violation for ethics breaches.

The Board of Ethics, however, hasn’t updated its rules and procedures to reflect the fines, so they haven’t gone into effect. The lack of an appeals process in state law has been the main stumbling block. The board considered whether their authority in county law could simply be appealed to circuit court by those facing fines or sanctions.

Board members Monday had mixed feelings about the proposals. Member Douglass Adams, along with Deputy Corporation Counsel J Yoshimoto, is working on the draft rules to be presented at a future date.

Vice Chairman Kenny Goodenow and Chairwoman Ku Kahakalau worried about the cost to the county from frivolous or speculative complaints, especially when outside counsel has to be brought in from off-island when Corporation Counsel has a conflict.

Goodenow questioned how a staff filtering process might work. He asked that the board consider putting those items on an executive session agenda so the board could consider them there.

“We might never see anything,” Goodenow said. “It might go totally under the radar without a board member actually reviewing anything.”

Adams, however, believes the public should have the ability to know about the complaints and testify if they choose.

“I tend to see us as an opportunity for folks that don’t have any other opportunity to deal with the big bad government situations, ” Adams said. “It seems some of this is just reading the paper and being upset and deciding they’re going to roll a petition, and to be honest with you, that’s kind of why we’re here to be that board that listens to that stuff.”

The state Ethics Commission has almost all its complaints vetted first by staff, Director Dan Gluck told the newspaper. Complaints deemed worth further investigation are brought to the Ethics Commission in closed session. Ethics decisions don’t become public unless there’s a settlement or resolution of charges.

Kapaau resident Lanric Hyland, who’s filed both successful and unsuccessful complaints with the county Ethics Board, doesn’t think complaints should go through a staff vetting process. There aren’t that many complaints filed, he said, and the board exists to hear them.

“I think a board that has very little to do anyway is trying to do even less,” Hyland said in a telephone interview. “It’s not like they’re overwhelmed with complaints. If they didn’t want to perform the public service, they should resign.”

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