Council could get more say over department heads

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HILO — A charter amendment giving the County Council more control over department heads is moving forward.

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HILO — A charter amendment giving the County Council more control over department heads is moving forward.

Department heads would have to come before the County Council for confirmation every two years, under a ballot amendment forwarded Thursday. Currently, department heads under the mayor’s control are confirmed by the council when first nominated, and then again four years later if the mayor is reelected and retains the same cabinet member.

Officials appointed by commissions who currently don’t appear before the council for confirmation, such as police and fire chiefs, would not be affected by the proposed change.

The council Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development voted 8-1 to advance the measure to the first of three required votes at the council level. The amendment would then go to the Nov. 8 general election ballot for the voters to decide.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung said he sponsored Bill 211 because council members, who are elected for two-year terms, sometimes have no chance to weigh in on cabinet members during their first terms. He said the confirmation process concurrent with the mayor’s four-year term comes from an era when council terms were also four years.

Term limits for council members were instituted by a 1996 charter amendment. Council members now are allowed no more than four consecutive two-year terms.

“If this is true for council members, I don’t see why it can’t be true for department heads as well.” Chung said.

He said the measure is no reflection on the current administration, which he praised as being very accessible and collaborative.

“If you do a good job, they should have no problem, ” Chung said, “and if they’re not doing a good job, they shouldn’t be there.”

Hilo Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, the sole no vote, said he opposes the measure because it could become political fodder when a County Council majority, as has happened in the past, becomes more adversarial to the mayor.

“Everybody looked at one side of the picture with one happy family,” Onishi said. “But when you have a situation where everybody is butting heads, it’s an entirely different story.”

Chung said no mayoral appointee has been turned down by a council in his experience, even during years of turmoil.

Mayor Billy Kenoi, who is term limited and would not be affected by the charter amendment, did not respond to a messages by press time Thursday.

Council Chairman Dru Kanuha, who represents Kona, said the proposed charter amendment isn’t complicated.

“There is currently a lot of accountability. They have to be accountable to the mayor. They have to be accountable to the public and they have to be accountable to us,” Kanuha said. “I think this gives an extra level of accountability to the council.”

Some council members were concerned that a two-year executive term could make quality candidates less likely to apply. But that concern was outweighed by the stated need for more council input.

“We’re all on that same page of checks and balances,” said South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David. “That’s not to take away from anything this administration has done.”

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The latest proposed charter amendment will be the last, under a timeline outlined by the county clerk. Charter amendment deadlines are determined by the county’s ability to get them worded and printed on the ballot.

Three other charter amendments working through the council process would give County Council members one more two-year term (Bill 154), create a larger Board of Ethics (Bill 101) and expand the scope of the general plan (Bill 179).

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