County hiring practices changing in wake of critical audit

  • Legislative Auditor Bonnie Nims and staff address the Merit Appeals Board in Hilo on Wednesday. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — A critical audit of the county Human Resources Department has spurred a bevy of changes to how public employees are recruited and hired.

The audit, released in September, analyzed hiring practices in 2016. It found questionable practices in 42 of the 46 positions it investigated. It also found inappropriate involvement by the Mayor’s Office in filling positions, as well as numerous other problems.


Former HR director Sharon Toriano resigned shortly after the audit became public. Bill Brilhante, the former deputy, was named acting director until the Merit Appeals Board hires a new director. That could happen as early as Tuesday.

“I had concerns upon reading the audit,” Merit Appeals Board Chairwoman Julie Tulang said Wednesday. “I am most pleased that the recommendations have been taken seriously and acted on immediately. I think we’re on the right track instilling confidence and fair practices concerning the merit system.”

The county has done away with its previous practice of holding applicant lists open indefinitely, which made it difficult for hiring officials to sift through lists of as many as 900 candidates, said Brilhante. The practice could have also led to favoritism when a preferred candidate was added to the list at the last minute, he said, adding that he’s not aware that actually occurred.

Now, frequently open entry-level positions — such as maintenance workers and groundskeepers — will be advertised for a 10-day window. HR will then rate the candidates against the required skill sets and forward the top 10-15 applicants to the hiring departments as need arises, he said.

A few hard-to-fill positions, such as crossing guards, will remain open indefinitely, Brilhante said.

Employees also must undergo mandatory training if they’re involved in recruitment and hiring, he said. That includes department-level staff who perform HR functions as well as staff in the HR department itself, he said. Only employees who have completed the training will be allowed on hiring committees.

The HR department is also creating a specific series of best practices and prohibited practices, in order to standardize hiring practices in all departments.

“It’s not something that can happen overnight,” Brilhante told the Merit Appeals Board. “We’re ensuring equality and fairness is effectuated.”

One other audit recommendation, that the county provide a hotline for whistleblowers, has been more difficult to address. Employees who were concerned about hiring practices kept quiet because they feared retaliation, the audit said.

Brilhante said he’s been in contact with the state ombudsman, hoping that office could be a neutral party to which whistleblowers could report. There are federal and state protections for whistleblowers, he added.

Brilhante said he’s also planning to ask the County Council for budget approval to hire an individual to regularly audit recruitment and hiring activity in the department.

The Sept. 7 audit report, by legislative auditor Bonnie Nims, found numerous problems in how the county selected applicants to be interviewed and how candidates were assessed.

The audit said the creation of a Staffing Review Committee during former Mayor Billy Kenoi’s administration, with the power to overrule departments’ hiring choices, contributed to “questionable hiring practices” and “inappropriate involvement” in a hiring agency’s choice of qualified candidates. Mayor Harry Kim disbanded the committee upon taking office.


The audit found cases in some departments where applicants were offered positions before interviews were conducted, where no references were checked, where the number of interviews were the same as vacancies even though there was a large referred list, where a random number generator, instead of a skills test, was used to winnow applicants, where applications with mainland addresses were discarded and other questionable practices.

West Hawaii Today, in an investigation, expanded on the audit’s findings by revealing the use of sticky notes and the acronym “POI” to designate a “person of interest,” who was selected even before recruitment was conducted for positions.