Traveling councilmen keep Ethics Board busy

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HILO — Puna Councilman Dan Paleka was cleared by the county Board of Ethics on Wednesday to accept a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with a nonprofit group on alternatives to incarceration for the mentally ill.

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HILO — Puna Councilman Dan Paleka was cleared by the county Board of Ethics on Wednesday to accept a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with a nonprofit group on alternatives to incarceration for the mentally ill.

Paleka, a former corrections officer, plans to attend a meeting in April with other officials in government and the nonprofit sector to determine how best to treat the estimated 100 or so mentally ill inmates in Big Island correctional facilities. The trip is being paid for by the National Association of Counties and a national psychiatric association, Paleka said.

Paleka asked for Ethics Board clearance because the county ethics code forbids officials and their families from accepting gifts, including money and travel, if it appears the gift could influence future official action or is a reward for past official action.

“If you’ve been on a trip to Washington, D.C., on a two-day turnaround, it’s not a gift to me — it’s torture,” Paleka told the board.

Paleka in November voted for a council resolution paving the way for the county to receive federal grants and support to provide alternatives for nonviolent mentally ill people who commit crimes. The program, endorsed by more than 50 public and private entities on the island trying to reintegrate former offenders into the community, could also draw on Medicare and Medicaid funds to help ensure those who need it get the care they deserve, advocates say.

The Ethics Board voted 3-0, with two members absent, that it wouldn’t be an unethical acceptance of a gift for Paleka to participate. Board member Doug Adams, however, iterated that the trip is a gift under the law, even if Paleka didn’t see it that way. He said gifts are allowed as long as they don’t influence officials, officials accept them in the course of their official legislative action and there is a benefit to the county.

The board had made a similar ruling for another council member at its last meeting in September. At that time, it gave Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan clearance to accept a trip to Ithica, New York, to address students at Cornell University, but told him he could not accept the $1,000 honorarium for his speech. At the time, Ilagan said he would be recounting his experiences as a council member faced with the contentious issue of genetically modified organisms, or GMO crops.

The trip was sponsored by the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO international effort that seeks to “add a stronger voice for science and depolarize the charged debate around agricultural biotechnology,” according to its website. It’s funded with a $5.6 million grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ilagan was on the losing end of a 6-3 council vote in late 2013 banning open-air cultivation of some GMO crops.

An opinion is still pending on the acceptance of travel by a third councilman, Chairman Dru Kanuha of Kona, who accepted two free flights to Honolulu paid by the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii. Kanuha sponsored bills in 2013 and 2014 limiting tobacco products and electronic cigarette use.

Kanuha told the Board of Ethics he flew to Honolulu to accept a legislator of the year award from the group. The case came before the board after a complaint was filed by Big Island smoke shop retailer Mariner Revell.

After months of canceled meetings due to a lack of members, the Board of Ethics is at full strength, but you wouldn’t know it from Wednesday’s meeting, when only three of its five members showed up.

The County Council last week had confirmed two new members to fill the board, but only one of them, Rick Robinson, showed up. The other new member, Darnel “Pili” Kalele, and the board chairwoman, Ku Kahakalau, were absent. A call to Kahakalau was not returned by press time Wednesday.

The board was free to vote on the Paleka and Ilagan cases because those two cases were requests for advisory opinions brought by the council members themselves, rather than complaints brought by citizens.

The ethics case against Mayor Billy Kenoi after his admitted misuse of his council credit card, or pCard, was not on the agenda because the board was waiting for the complainant, Lanric Hyland, to be available following medical treatment.

Hyland testified Wednesday, saying he wasn’t aware it was up to him to put the item on the agenda.

The absence of the members led to the postponement of four agenda items relating to Kanuha, leading Revell to leave the room shaking his head and sighing loudly in disgust. It was his fifth time coming to a board meeting and having his complaint postponed.

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Revell had filed complaints against two Ethics Board members as well as Kanuha, saying the two members had conflicts of interest in their votes because one is married to an employee in the Clerk’s Office, and one served on another board with Kanuha. Because of those complaints, the targeted board members recused themselves, leading to the lack of quorum.

“Annnnnnnd the Ethics board wasted my day once again,” Mariner posted on his Facebook page after he left the meeting. “Not enough members to vote what a joke!”

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