Ethics bill advances

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Six years after it was first proposed by Mayor Billy Kenoi, a package of ethics reforms was grudgingly advanced Tuesday by a County Council committee.

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Six years after it was first proposed by Mayor Billy Kenoi, a package of ethics reforms was grudgingly advanced Tuesday by a County Council committee.

The council Finance Committee voted 5-4 along west-east lines to forward Bill 37 to the council with a positive recommendation, after promises of future amendments from bill sponsor Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille.

“This is part of what the mayor was promoting, at least back then,” Wille said, adding the bill reduces conflicts of interest and “keeps us as employees at a higher standard of performance and of ethics and morals.”

The bill would ban companies owned by county officers or employees or their immediate families from holding county contracts valued at more than $50,000. It would prohibit county officers or employees from representing private interests against the county or appearing on behalf of private interests before county agencies. And, it clarifies that county property, facilities, time, equipment and personnel can be used only for a public purpose, and not for private business or campaign purposes.

Kenoi first proposed the bill in September 2009. Since then, it’s bounced between County Council and Board of Ethics, without approval by either body.

“I supported the mayor’s original changes, which were a little stricter,” said Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha. “There’s always going to be some perception out there that there could be something wrong. … It seems like this is ongoing forever.”

Wille and the other council members have worked on the bill over five meetings so far this year. But opponents — Hilo Councilmen Dennis “Fresh” Onishi and Aaron Chung, and Puna Councilmen Greggor Ilagan and Dan Paleka — still have concerns the changes will do more harm than good. The contractor prohibition particularly concerned them.

“What is the perception that we’re trying to fix?” asked Ilagan. “That employees have some sort of inside information and are able to go through the system and somehow get that contract?”

Ilagan said county employees could possibly be the low bidders, and hiring them could save the county money. As a steward of the county funds, Ilagan said he has a responsibility to see the county gets the lowest price.

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Chung said the council would be better off strengthening the powers of the Board of Ethics so it could better investigate and respond to complaints.

“I think that what we have currently addresses any ethical problems,” Chung said. “As long as you’re not in the bidding-loop, the decision-making loop, why not be able to work for the county.”

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