Finance Committee mulls charter changes

A trio of proposed charter amendments made their debut Monday, heading for County Council approval before being offered for voter scrutiny.

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A trio of proposed charter amendments made their debut Monday, heading for County Council approval before being offered for voter scrutiny.

But action in the Finance Committee showed it likely that only one of the bills may make it to the Nov. 4 ballot.

Counties have until Aug. 21 to submit proposed charter amendments to the state Office of Elections to be placed on the ballot in the general election. The three bills considered Monday are the only ones considered thus far.

Bill 253, sponsored by Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, would set the term of the county clerk as six years, unless terminated for cause by a two-thirds vote of the council. The new term would start with the clerk appointed for the new 2014-16 term.

Currently, the clerk is appointed by the council chairman, with confirmation by the council majority. As council chairmen change every two years, that has left the clerk’s office with a new boss just as often.

The clerk administers council meetings, oversees elections in the county and is the custodian of the county seal.

Yoshimoto said he modeled the measure after the county’s current process of selecting and overseeing its legislative auditor. Yoshimoto, who is term-limited, sees the bill as one of the legacies he wants to leave with the council.

“Basically, every two years, there is a new clerk,” Yoshimito said. “One of the things I want to make better is some stability within the office.”

A six-year term would remove some of the “political tension” from the office, he said.

Other council members initially disagreed.

“It takes away from the actual powers of the chair and the council to appoint our own clerk,” said Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, who ultimately voted in favor of the measure.

South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford, who is also term-limited, was the only no in the 7-1 Finance Committee vote to forward the bill to the council with a positive recommendation. Hilo Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi was absent for the vote.

Ford worried that a six-year clerk would have too much power and wouldn’t be as responsive to the council. She also wanted some minimum qualifications set for the clerk.

Bill 254 would add the “precautionary principle” to the county charter. This means, if an action is to be taken that could cause harm to the people or environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful will be on the organization or agency proposing the action.

The amendment would require applicants for zoning or other land use changes to provide full disclosure of factors that could affect the public health, safety and welfare, cultural resources or the public trust natural resources doctrine. The County Council or administrative agency would have the affirmative duty to protect resources by the precautionary principle.

Bill sponsor Ford said recent court sanctions against the county show that something is “running amok here and amiss.”

“I’m doing this because the public says we are not doing enough to protect them,” Ford said.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Kathy Garson said the county has to adhere to laws as continually refined by courts.

“You’re obligated already to apply public trust principles,” said Garson.

A handful of testifiers who attended the meeting were primarily in favor of the amendment.

“This asks that decision-makers anticipate harm before it occurs,” said Joy Cash. “In simple terms … better safe than sorry. Look before you leap.”

Testifier Larry Gehring didn’t see it that way.

“This is a back-door attempt to give more importance to the GMO bill,” said Gehring, referring to a recent bill the council passed requiring registration and some limitations on production of genetically modified crops.

Ford was the only yes in a 1-8 vote, so the bill proceeds to the council with a negative recommendation.

Bill 255, also sponsored by Ford, would allow the County Council to hire and retain its own attorneys, rather than rely on the Corporation Counsel that is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. Ford has often been at odds with Corporation Counsel over various issues.

The charter currently allows the council to hire special counsel only for special matters “presenting a real necessity for such.” A two-thirds vote is required.

Ford said Corporation Counsel has repeatedly been unable to define what a “special” matter is or what is a “real necessity.”

“It’s not up for Corporation Counsel to say, ‘Oh that’s not special enough,’” Ford said.

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That bill also was sent to the council with a 1-8 negative vote.

“We already have that ability,” said Puna Councilman Zendo Kern.

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