Ethics Board gives Eoff green light

HILO — The county Board of Ethics on Monday unanimously gave North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff the go-ahead to sponsor a bill regulating vacation rentals.

That was the board’s role in the process.

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But Eoff still must disclose a possible conflict of interest and get a ruling from the council chairwoman, according to the county charter and council rules of procedure, said Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela.

However, he said, council members have an obligation to vote.

“The council members have to operate,” Kamelamela said. “But they have rules. … Rules regulate how government is going to operate.”

Ethics Board Vice Chairman Kenny Goodenow agreed with Kamelamela’s legal interpretation.

“As long as there’s disclosure, you can vote on anything,” Goodenow said. “The real point is you’re not really receiving a benefit.”

Also still pending is a possible formal complaint from a Seaview vacation rental operator who’s asking why Eoff didn’t declare her vacation rental income on financial disclosure forms. Eoff, saying she misunderstood what the form required, has subsequently filed amended financial disclosures for the past six years. In 2017, she had income between $10,000 and $50,000 on the condo unit, according to her amended disclosure.

The board’s decision came after Kamelamela, a member of Mayor Harry Kim’s Cabinet, a County Council colleague and a local vacation rental expert all testified on Eoff’s behalf. Kim was in the audience as the board came to its decision.

“The Mayor’s Office has held this vacation rental issue in high priority and we started working on this bill last year,” said Roy Takemoto, one of Kim’s executive assistants. “The bill as introduced, we would have introduced basically the same thing without much substantive difference from what was introduced.”

Takemoto said the administration asked Eoff and Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha to introduce it because it was such a hot issue in West Hawaii.

South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David also came to Eoff’s defense.

“The question is, whether Ms. Eoff is using her position as a council member to get special privileges, consideration, treatment or exemption beyond what is available to every other person,” David said. “I say no.”

Eoff, who owns a vacation rental unit in a zoning district that allows vacation rentals under Bill 108, had asked the Ethics Board if it would be a conflict of interest to sponsor the bill. Vacation rentals are currently not regulated under county law, although zoning regulations allow commercial uses in commercial and resort districts.

Eoff’s request for an advisory opinion came after a vacation rental owner in a zoning category that would be limited by the bill questioned her participation in the legislation.

“I don’t believe I violated any of the provisions of the code of ethics,” Eoff said. “I believe that I was acting within my legislative duties in taking on this bill.”

“I’ve learned a lot from this,” Eoff added, acknowledging she made some mistakes.

Rob Guzman, in a letter requesting the board investigate, questioned Eoff’s possible conflict of interest because the bill requires him, in an agricultural district, to pay $500 annually for the privilege of running a vacation rental, while those under her zoning would merely have to register.

Guzman also asked whether Eoff ran afoul of the ethics code when she misrepresented her vacation rental ownership in email exchanges with him and told him not to pursue his questions.

“She lied to me as a voter in Hawaii,” he told the board.

Eoff said the email response where she said, “I do not have — and have never had — a rental of any kind. … Please stop sending misinformation,” was written in haste from her cellphone when she saw that Guzman had copied his email to a number of top county officials and the media. She was in a meeting at the time and her response didn’t come out as planned, she said.

“I didn’t want the message to go any further,” she said about writing a quick response.

Board member Rick Robinson said it could be seen as an “unfair competitive advantage” for some vacation rental operators to have to pay a $500 annual fee while others did not. Noting that “perception is not reality,” Robinson still saw good reason for Guzman to have questions about the fee, the email response and the financial disclosures.

“I can understand why Mr. Guzman had his concerns and he brought them to the Ethics Board,” Robinson said.

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Guzman said after the meeting that he’s still deciding whether to pursue a formal complaint.

“It’s pretty clear where they all stand. No one wants to rule against their friend,” Guzman said. “They can simply fail to disclose … and say ‘I misunderstood.’ Go ahead and hide anything you want as long as you disclose it if you get caught.”