Saturday | October 21, 2017
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County attorneys fees rejected after missing council vote

HILO — Hawaii County Finance Director Nancy Crawford has canceled purchase orders totaling $42,499 that Council Chairman Dominic Yagong had issued to outside attorneys to represent the legislative branch in grievances with fired Elections Office employees.

In Feb. 28 letters to Council Chairman Dominic Yagong and attorneys Michael Matsukawa, Vaughn Cook and Dennis E. W. O’Connor, Crawford said the purchase orders would not be honored because they were submitted without County Council authorization. The county charter requires the council approve special counsel by a two-thirds vote.

Yagong on Monday disagreed that a council vote was necessary. He said, since the employees have not filed a lawsuit against the county, the attorneys were not retained for litigation. Instead, he pointed to state procurement law, which allows the chief procurement officer of each government agency to select from a list of professionals, including attorneys, as long as the purchase order is $25,000 or less.

“We went through the legal process of procurement,” Yagong said. “It’s a little questionable as to why the rules are changing in this case.”

Yagong said the council needed its own legal advisers after Corporation Counsel said it was going to withdraw from the grievance process, and the council didn’t have anyone to read over the documents and give a legal opinion.

Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida said Monday that he was unaware of the reason for the legal services.

“We were not consulted, nor were we involved in that process,” Ashida said.

Hilo attorney Cook, whose $25,000 purchase order was the largest, declined to discuss the issue based on client confidentiality.

The county Elections Office employees, including warehouse manager Glen Shikuma and his boss Pat Nakamoto and two other employees, were fired after an investigation by the Clerk’s Office reportedly found alcohol and sign-making equipment in the elections warehouse.

The employees are going through the grievance process and have the option of appealing to the Mayor’s Office if the grievance doesn’t go their way. According to the county charter, employees must file a claim with the clerk’s office before becoming eligible to file a lawsuit in circuit court.

Their attorney Ted Hong said in January he intends to file a defamation lawsuit seeking $500,000 for each client’s emotional distress and injury to their professional standing.

Shikuma had closed his sign-making business when he took the county job, but he continued to make signs and T-shirts from the county warehouse on his own time, according to Hong. In addition, various county clerks, council chairs and other county officials “routinely” attended “mahalo” parties held for elections workers at the Hilo warehouse, where people brought their own alcohol, Hong said.

It is a violation of county code for employees to run private businesses out of county facilities and to drink or have alcohol at job sites. But Hong contends the employees were wrongly fired.