pCard bill postponed

After struggling to come up with a definition of “public purpose,” and in the absence of key players, the County Council Finance Committee on Tuesday postponed a bill to tighten rules governing county purchasing card policies.

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After struggling to come up with a definition of “public purpose,” and in the absence of key players, the County Council Finance Committee on Tuesday postponed a bill to tighten rules governing county purchasing card policies.

With Council Chairman Dru Kanuha, Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung and Finance Department officials absent, the committee postponed the discussion until Sept. 1.

Bill 78, sponsored by Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan, simply adds the phrase, “No exception involving public funds shall be authorized without a public purpose,” to the section of law stating that the mayor or council chairman “may approve exceptions with good cause to any provision relating to travel and expenses.”

“It allows the executive position to determine what that public purpose is,” Ilagan said. “It gives the executive position flexibility to determine what is the public purpose.”

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille wanted to see more. She said the bill addressed just one aspect of pCard use. She said she also wants a bill that required additional accountability and transparency, treated all employees fairly and had an effective enforcement mechanism.

Wille criticized Ilagan’s bill as “just a little tiny clarification.”

“It would look like next to nothing,” Wille said.

Ilagan was trying to address recommendations by Legislative Auditor Bonnie Nims, whose audit into pCard use found several problems, primarily in the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Liquor Control, with cards being used for personal purchases and purchases, such as for alcohol, against county policies.

But hearing that Nims also would prefer stronger language, Ilagan agreed to the postponement.

“This is the definitely first step but it’s not the last,” Ilagan said.

Several testifiers stressed the need to help the public regain confidence in their elected officials.

“The current situation has angered a lot of people,” said Carol Buck, testifying from Waimea. “There just simply was not anyone watching over the system.”

“The issue at hand is the lack of trust in government,” said Richard Abbett.

Abbett, an unsuccessful candidate for County Council last year, said even running for office left a stain on him in some people’s eyes.

“This underlying soot we accept for having a sense of duty,” is how he described it.

Wille said the council should take a stance showing it didn’t approve of Mayor Billy Kenoi’s misuse of his pCard, which now has him embroiled in an investigation by the state attorney general. She said the lack of response by the County Council and so far by the county Board of Ethics, coupled with the recusal from the case by the county prosecutor, has led to public skepticism.

The attorney general’s investigation followed a West Hawaii Today report that Kenoi had used his pCard at Honolulu hostess bars and to buy personal items including an expensive surfboard and bicycle. Kenoi generally paid the money back, but $9,559 in reimbursements didn’t occur until months later, after the newspaper broke the story.

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Between January 2009 and March 2015, Kenoi racked up a total of $122,315 on his county-issued card. In those years, he paid back $22,293 for personal charges on the card, usually within a month or so.

Kenoi has publicly apologized and promised to cooperate with investigators.

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