Weakened ethics bill trudging along

A weakened bill attempting to tighten county ethics standards is trudging toward its eighth hearing this year before the Hawaii County Council, as council members work to hack off all the offending pieces.

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A weakened bill attempting to tighten county ethics standards is trudging toward its eighth hearing this year before the Hawaii County Council, as council members work to hack off all the offending pieces.

Bill 37, now in its fourth draft since it was sponsored in March by Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, on Wednesday was postponed until Oct. 21. A similar bill sponsored by Mayor Billy Kenoi in 2009 bounced for months between the County Council and Board of Ethics, without winning approval by either body.

Wille still has high hopes for her bill.

“This is aimed toward raising the ethical standards that are expected of county employees,” Wille said. “I do think it’s important. … What we can do is take little steps to raise awareness and consciousness and give people more trust in their government.”

The “little steps” have been getting increasingly smaller since the bill started off, particularly pertaining to allowing county employees and their immediate families to hold county contracts for their own outside business at the same time they’re employed by the county.

The versions of the bill started with an absolute ban, which then became a ban on contracts over $10,000, then on contracts over $50,000, and finally, returned to allowing the contracts as long as the county employee clears it with the Board of Ethics first.

“A dollar figure has nothing to do with ethical behavior,” said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, supporting the most recent change.

Wille, facing a 5-4 vote in favor or a 4-5 vote in opposition, has been amenable to changes from other council members, apparently figuring any ethics bill is better than none at all.

But changes approved Wednesday for the fourth draft of the bill basically take it back to status quo, at least for employees acting as contractors.

Several council members have pointed out that one county employee, Randy Riley, the Automotive Division chief for the Department of Public Works, saves the county thousands over other contractors who bid for the same DPW drywell cleaning project. In a competitive closed-bid process, it shouldn’t make a difference, they said.

“This all goes to open government and transparency,” Wille said, noting that the public would now know about county employees holding county contracts.

That information currently isn’t collected, and the Finance Department has been unable to compile a list of county employees currently moonlighting on county contracts.

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“We’re happy with the majority of the changes,” said Purchasing Agent Jeff Dansdill.

Other parts of the bill prohibit county officers or employees from representing private interests against the county or appearing on behalf of private interests before county agencies. And, the bill 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.

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