Kenoi vetoes corporation counsel protection bill

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HILO — One of former Mayor Billy Kenoi’s last actions Monday was to veto a bill that would have given the County Council more say over the hiring and firing of the county’s civil attorneys.

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HILO — One of former Mayor Billy Kenoi’s last actions Monday was to veto a bill that would have given the County Council more say over the hiring and firing of the county’s civil attorneys.

“The process laid out in Bill 254 is contrary to the charter. Moreover, requiring council approval for the appointment or removal of deputies corporation counsel, politicizes a process which should not be political. Therefore, I am vetoing Bill 254,” Kenoi said in a short veto letter delivered to the County Council.

It’s a relatively rare veto for Kenoi, who’s probably vetoed fewer than a dozen bills during his eight-year tenure.

Kenoi attached a Dec. 1 analysis by Corporation Counsel Molly Stebbins, who agreed the process would be politicized if the council were to have that much power. The council has confirmation power over the corporation counsel, who then has authority to hire and fire the deputies.

“For the effective management of the office, the department head must have the discretion to make appropriate personnel decisions,” Stebbins said, adding the bill would, “place into the public realm matters which should be kept internal and which may involve significant privacy interests.”

Stebbins, unlike other department heads, continues in her post under the new mayoral administration, serving as the chief civil attorney until her replacement is confirmed by the council. A confirmation hearing for Mayor Harry Kim’s nominee, Joe Kamelamela, is scheduled for Dec. 21 in Kona.

The council had approved Bill 254 on a 6-2 vote last month, despite concerns from local attorneys and a former councilwoman that it might violate the county charter. Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter and North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff voted no.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung had introduced the bill after learning Kamelamela had notified deputies of pending job losses even before he himself had been confirmed by the County Council to fill the post. Chung publicly took Kamelamela to task and Kamelamela apologized during the meeting.

Stebbins had said Kamelamela told almost half the attorneys in her office they wouldn’t be retained. Kamelamela, a former longtime deputy in the office, retired unexpectedly and two other deputies were fired after Stebbins took over in 2014.

He told the council he has since backed off his plan to terminate so many attorneys.

The 11 deputy positions, which pay $99,240 annually, are overseen by two section chiefs and an assistant corporation counsel, who make slightly more. The corporation counsel — the mayor’s appointee — makes $110,244.

“The mayor followed the law,” Kamelamela said Thursday of the veto.

The corporation counsel is appointed by the mayor, confirmed by the council and may be removed by the mayor with the approval of the council, under the charter. Unlike other top officials in county government, the corporation counsel represents the council as well as the administration. All the attorneys’ positions run coterminous with the mayor.

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Chung said he’s unlikely to bring the matter up before the council for an attempt at a veto override. An override would require at least six members of the new council to approve.

“I think the message was loud and clear,” Chung said Thursday. “Our employees, whether the highest paid or the lowest paid, deserve to be treated fairly and respectfully.”

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