Kamelamela confirmation moves forward

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HILO — With Mayor Harry Kim shouldering all the blame for a perceived misstep, and dozens of people supporting his nomination, Corporation Counsel nominee Joe Kamelamela on Wednesday survived his first step toward confirmation.

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HILO — With Mayor Harry Kim shouldering all the blame for a perceived misstep, and dozens of people supporting his nomination, Corporation Counsel nominee Joe Kamelamela on Wednesday survived his first step toward confirmation.

After an almost three-hour session, the County Council, sitting as the Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development, voted 7-2 to confirm Kamelamela as the county’s top civil attorney, sending the nomination to one more meeting for finalization.

Most at issue for council members was Kamelamela’s action shortly after nomination, notifying almost half of the 11 deputy attorneys in the Office of the Corporaiton Counsel they won’t be kept on in the next administration. He’s since reconsidered his action, and at least two of those attorneys can now stay on.

“I know the deputies. I know their weaknesses,” Kamelamela said. “I’m not here to hurt anybody’s feelings.”

Deputies are at-will employees, who can be fired without cause. Under the charter, they serve coterminous with the administration of the mayor, but in practice they are mostly kept on after a change in mayors. Unlike other members of the mayor’s Cabinet, the previous corporation counsel stays on until the new one is confirmed.

Kim said Kamelamela came to him and asked if he should give the deputies advance notice as a courtesy so they could look for employment.

“Publicly taking Joe to task on this whole issue, this one issue, is totally unfair because it was me,” Kim told the council, adding, “I chose him because I think he’s the best attorney to lead us at this time.”

Kamelamela defended his actions, saying he had authority to choose his deputies if he gets confirmed.

“I wasn’t being presumptuous. I was giving these guys choices,” he said. “I’m looking for a team, a real team.”

Several council members took exception to Kamelamela’s actions.

“I’ve heard many, many good things today,” said Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter, one of two who voted “no.” “That’s not where my concerns are. … My concerns are with your administrative skill sets. My concerns are the recommendation came from the mayor and you ran with it without looking at the unintended consequences.”

Kohala Councilman Tim Richards was the other dissenting vote. Both Richards and Poindexter plan to meet with Kamelamela before the Jan. 25 final vote.

Thirteen people, including former county employees and local attorneys, heaped praise on Kamelamela, who retired from the Office of the Corporation Counsel in 2014 after more than 20 years experience there. Twenty-six sent in letters of recommendation.

“Mr. Kamelamela’s integrity, intellect and commanding understanding of the law are just three of the many outstanding attributes which he will bring to the table if confirmed,” said Gilbert Benevides, a retired county purchasing agent who worked with Kamelamela in the past.

“Joseph Kamelamela has the moral character and experience to be an excellent corporation counsel,” said retired County Prosecutor Charlene Iboshi. “Please allow him to help our county government and our community.”

“Joe has consistently demonstrated intelligence, leadership, integrity, good humor and the ability to work as a team to accomplish a common goal,” said Steven Lim, managing partner of Carlsmith Ball LLP.

Former Deputy Corporation Steve Strauss was the only fly in the ointment, offering the one dissenting testimony on Kamelamela’s nomination. Strauss accused Kamelamela of retaliating against political foes.

“I was dismayed to learn that whom deputies or their family members supported in the recent election may have played a role in the termination decision,” said Strauss, who left the office of Corporation Counsel in October.

The majority of council members said Kamelamela’s qualities ultimately outweighed the perceived misstep.

“There is absolutely no question about your superlative character and about your years of experience,” said Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, adding she thought deputies could have been kept on through the transition. “I feel there is a bit of a rush.”

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, whose concern about the whole affair motivated him to sponsor a bill giving the council more say in deputy hirings and firings, said “it didn’t seem like the Joe Kamelamela that we knew.”

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“It was a legitimate concern. So take that to heart,” he told Kamelamela.

“It could be perceived as professionally unfortunate and possibly inappropriate,” said Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles. “It could also be perceived as the courteous thing to do if firings are inevitable.”

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