HILO — How involved should the public be in determining government salaries?
Some taxpayers argue they’re the ones paying the salaries and should have an opportunity to weigh in. But a majority of voters previously have approved charter amendments attempting to take the politics out of setting top county officials’ salaries by leaving it to an appointed board known as the Salary Commission.
Amendment 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot was top of mind for most members of the Salary Commission on Monday, as it mulled a request for recommendations from the Charter Commission.
The Charter Commission is tasked with looking at ways to improve the county charter, the fundamental document governing the county, in the same way a constitution forms the basis for government of the state and nation. That commission’s recommendations will be put on the 2020 ballot for the voters to decide.
In the meantime, however, Amendment 1 will set new requirements for public notice of raises the Salary Commission proposes. If approved by voters, it takes effect Nov. 7.
Amendment 1 requires the Salary Commission to give the public 30 days’ notice before adopting pay increases, by publishing the notice in the island’s newspapers and providing for public inspection a detailed report of its findings and conclusions. In addition, the commission must hold a public hearing on either the east or west side of the island, with videoconference participation on the other side.
The amendment also requires a two-thirds commission vote of any salary increase or decrease of more than 10 percent.
An attempt by Commissioner George Campbell to have the Salary Commission tell the Charter Commission it’s OK with the charter amendment failed on a 1-7 vote.
“It’s my opinion we could live with that,” Campbell said.
Commissioner James Higgins was the most adamant in opposition, calling it “political grandstanding at its best.”
“First of all, there was nothing wrong with the process. I don’t see what all this hullabaloo was all about,” Higgins said. “The County Council heard a little bit of an uproar. … They could have refused to have taken those pay raises themselves and we know that’s not going to happen.”
The commission subsequently agreed to send a letter to the Charter Commission including its concerns about the added cost to the county to implement Amendment 1, should it pass.
“We go through a costly process trying to correct something that worked perfectly,” Higgins said. “It’s only going to do one thing and that’s to raise the cost of government.”
The cost of publishing notices and holding videoconference public hearings is currently unknown, as it depends on how many times the commission plans to pass raises over the course of the year. But the videoconference portion of the cost should be negligible, said Deputy County Clerk Jon Henricks. The Charter Commission currently is videoconferencing its meetings to both sides of the island, and there haven’t been concerns about it affecting its budget, he said.
It’s not just the cost, said Commissioner Milton Pavao.
“It gives the public the impression they have the right to set salaries,” Pavao said. “Ninety percent of people out there think government is paid too much. … They didn’t have the information we had.”
Commissioner Tom Fratinardo didn’t see a need to tell the Charter Commission the Salary Commission’s stance on Amendment 1.
”The chair made this commission’s feelings known about this act several months ago which is on record,” Fratinardo said. “We basically decided a couple months back we weren’t in favor of this. … People are going to vote the way they’re going to vote in November.”
Fratinardo said he had some other areas that he’d like the Charter Commission to look at, but he needed time to develop them.
Pavao wanted to look into changing the charter so that the Salary Commission could consider, in addition to comparable salaries in the public and private sector, the county’s ability to pay when setting raises. He withdrew that motion after it became obvious there was no support for it.
“We’re $5 million short and we’re talking about giving raises?” Pavao said. “It’s crazy.”
Amendment 1 was placed on the ballot after three votes of the County Council. Bill 98, sponsored by Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, received unanimous council approval.
The bill came following a public outcry after the commission passed double-digit raises with little advance notice. The raises, to 36 positions whose salaries are controlled by the commission, added about $1.5 million to last year’s budget, coming in midyear, and more to this year’s budget that started July 1.
The Salary Commission is in the midst of changing its rules to make its process more open. In addition, it plans to consider its next round of raises early enough that they can be incorporated into next year’s budget, increasing the transparency of the process. That process is slated to begin at the next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 9.
“There’s another layer of public disclosure,” said Commission Chairman Hugh Ono.
One of the biggest raises this year went to Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela, whose salary went up by $42,982 or 39 percent, to $153,226. That position last received a raise in late 2013, when the salary went up 11.3 percent to $110,244.
County Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter got a 32.8 percent raise to $77,017, and other County Council members got 34.6 percent more, to $70,008. Council members last got a raise in 2014, with the council chairman getting an 11.5 percent raise then to $58,008. Other council members got 8.3 percent raises, bringing their salaries to $52,008.
Mayor Harry Kim got a $30,581 raise, or 23.2 percent, to $162,581. In 2014, the mayor received a $22,848 raise, or 20.9 percent, bringing his salary to $132,000.