Postponement kills charter amendment

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HILO — A charter amendment giving the County Council more control over department heads is unlikely to make it to the Nov. 8 ballot, following its postponement Wednesday in the face of scattered opposition and several proposed changes.

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HILO — A charter amendment giving the County Council more control over department heads is unlikely to make it to the Nov. 8 ballot, following its postponement Wednesday in the face of scattered opposition and several proposed changes.

That leaves just one measure on the ballot as time evaporates for the required three readings to meet internal deadlines for ballot processing.

“It’s going to be impossible to get it on the ballot,” said bill sponsor Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung.

Bill 211 would have required department heads to come before the council for confirmation every two years. Currently, department heads under the mayor’s control are confirmed by the council when first nominated, and then again up to four years later if the mayor is re-elected and retains the same cabinet member.

That’s not fair to council members who are elected every two years and may have no say on important cabinet-level positions, Chung said.

“I think accountability of our department heads is the most important thing we should be striving for,” Chung said. “Maybe this will never see the light of day again … but for all intents and purposes it won’t make a difference if we pass it now or next year.”

Putting it on the 2018 ballot could have the same effect, Chung said, because a new mayor and new cabinet comes into play this year, in December.

The council postponed the measure on a 6-3 vote, with Hilo Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille and Puna Councilman Danny Paleka voting not to postpone it.

Wille didn’t see a need for postponement.

“We’re just wimping out,” Wille said. “We can’t make a decision.”

Onishi agreed.

“We should be voting on it,” he said, advocating a clean, transparent way for constituents to understand what’s gong on. “Either vote it up or vote it down.”

Paleka wanted to amend the bill to allow the council to make performance evaluations, without the authority to terminate a department head. He said that would make it more fair because the rank-and-file face these periodic evaluations.

Others were less sure of either Paleka’s proposed changes or the original bill.

“I think a lot of us have mixed feelings,” said North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff.

“I’m uncomfortable that we would be the one who would evaluate someone’s performance,” said South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David. “If we don’t confirm someone every two years then we effectively remove that director.”

“This bill would have a chilling effect on the pool of candidates,” said former Finance Director Nancy Crawford, the sole testifier on the issue. “We want the very best people leading all our departments.”

Wille disagreed, saying department heads currently have no job security, as they are at-will employees, serving as the mayor wishes. Wille pointed to the Department of Research and Development, which is on its fourth director in seven and a half years, as an example.

“This council tends to be very — if not overly — deferential to the executive branch, contrary to our role as the policymakers,” Wille added. “We have the potential to be a strong body and we choose not to be.”

The only amendment now slated for the ballot is Bill 179 sponsored by Wille, and signed Monday by Mayor Billy Kenoi.

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The ballot initiative would expand the scope of the county’s general plan, which is the long-term document governing land use on the island. It adds health to factors that should be considered in planning growth, and specifies that the plan is the “long-range policy for the comprehensive physical, economic, environmental and socio-cultural well-being of the county.”

“These words may seem very theoretical,” said Wille, “but they are important.”

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