Expanded Ethics Board still under consideration

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HILO — In an unexpected move, the County Council on Monday breathed new life into a bill aiming to enlarge the county Board of Ethics.

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HILO — In an unexpected move, the County Council on Monday breathed new life into a bill aiming to enlarge the county Board of Ethics.

After some discussion, the council agreed 8-0 to postpone Bill 101 until late January, to see if a compromise measure would be more acceptable to more members. Puna Councilman Greggor Illagan was absent.

The Finance Committee, composed of the entire council, earlier this month had given the bill a 2-6 thumbs down.

Bill 101 in its original form would have put a charter amendment on the ballot asking voter approval to expand the Board of Ethics from five to nine members, with one member from each council district. Each County Council member would have submitted two names to the mayor, who would pick one from each district and send the nomination to the council for confirmation.

The committee had nixed that idea, saying the current system where the mayor appoints and the council confirms is similar to all other boards and commissions. It’s important for the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances for that process to continue, they said.

“I urge you all to reconsider,” said Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, the bill sponsor. “Our current system of dealing with the Ethics Board and dealing with ethics violations is broken and we need to fix it. … We don’t keep house. We leave it to the state and the feds to do something.”

Council members Monday still didn’t like Wille’s proposed setup, but they said enlarging the board from its current five members to nine, or possibly seven, could help the board field a quorum. The board hasn’t met since August, because it currently has just three members, and all three need to attend every meeting in order to achieve a quorum, or board majority.

Ethics Board Chairwoman Ku Kahakalau, who was not at the council meeting but was reached by phone afterward, disagreed that the Ethics Board is dysfunctional. Nor does the membership need to be expanded to seven or nine, she said.

Simply filling the two vacancies should solve the problem, according to Kahakalau. She said she’s been working to help get more members. A fourth member should be coming before the council in January for confirmation, and a fifth nominee may soon follow, she said.

“It was never intended for a board like that to have three members,” Kahakalau said. “It’s not good for us and it’s not good for the people who come in front of us.”

The board handles ethics complaints from residents about public officials. It also provides advisory letters to public officials about ethics issues, such as whether they can take on outside jobs. And, it reviews annual gift disclosures and financial disclosures of a host of officials and county employees in certain positions.

Some council members maintain the bill is an overreaction to the current situation, where the Ethics Board stood stagnant after being asked to investigate a complaint against Mayor Billy Kenoi, who appoints the members. Kenoi is being investigated by the Ethics Board and the state attorney general for misuse of his county-issued credit card, known as a pCard.

“I think it’s reactionary,” said Puna Councilman Dan Paleka. “The Ethics (Board) has been functioning for a long time, and very well.”

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung agreed. He said adding additional members would make the board unwieldy.

“We don’t have a broken system,” Chung said. “We just have a situation where the mayor has not submitted names for our confirmation and vetting.”

Hawaii County is the only county with a five-member board. Honolulu and Kauai each have seven-member boards appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. Maui’s nine-member board is selected the same way.

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Kailua-Kona resident Cheryl King, who has lobbied consistently for changes to the board, said her comments aren’t in reaction to Kenoi’s situation, but stem from a measure she brought to the board two and a half years ago relating to mandatory attendance by county employees — on county time and in a county facility — to campaign sessions featuring a union-endorsed slate of political candidates. The board found no ethics violation with that practice.

“This is not a knee-jerk reaction to the mayor’s situation,” King said Monday. “Maintaining the status quo will not restore confidence in the Ethics Board.”

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