Ethics reform just may be the last 2008 campaign promise still on Mayor Billy Kenoi’s plate.
He’s hoping the Hawaii County Council Finance Committee finally bites when it meets at 4 p.m. today to consider a bill that’s been twice spurned by the county Board of Ethics and killed by a previous County Council. The meeting will be held at the West Hawaii Civic Center, with videoconference feeds for public testimony also set up in Hilo council chambers, the Waimea council office, the former Bank of Hawaii facility in Kohala, the Pahoa Neighborhood Facility and the Hawaiian Ocean View Estates Community Center.
Kenoi has proposed four changes, some of them modeled after the City and County of Honolulu’s code. The changes, aimed at stopping the most blatant appearances of conflicts of interest, forbid employees from contracting with county government or lobbying boards and commissions on behalf of private businesses.
The most significant proposal is a ban on companies holding contracts with county government where county employees, their spouses or dependent children have a controlling interest.
“People can choose to be either an employee of the county or a vendor of the county, but not both,” Kenoi has repeatedly said.
The Finance Committee nibbled at the proposal last month, then pushed it aside to give the administration a chance to explain some of the areas of concern. Some council members worried the changes would have unintended consequences, preventing off-duty police from working events, or even minor contracts such as held by children of county employees from working as part-time lifeguards.
Kenoi has said the concerns could be addressed by setting a minimum dollar amount where the new ethics rules would kick in. He hasn’t proposed an amendment with that language, but one could possibly be offered by the council.
Puna Councilman Zendo Kern favors some kind of ethics reforms, because even if there is no wrongdoing going on, there still could be the appearance of it, leading to mistrust of government, he said.
“Even if everything is above-board … sometimes we have that appearance of impropriety,” Kern said.
North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff agreed.
“It’s a way to increase the public’s confidence in government,” she said.
The issue was last before the council in November 2010, when it was voted down by a 5-2 vote. Of those still on the council, Chairman J Yoshimoto of Hilo abstained at the time because his wife, Tracie, previously contracted with the county’s Office of Aging. South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford voted yes, and Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi voted no.
Onishi looked like he was still heading for a “no” vote today, based on comments at the Jan. 21 meeting. He said tightening the code would cut down on competition, and make it harder for residents to get jobs.
“There’s a process,” Onishi said. “We’re one small island, and the thing is, sometimes people need an extra job just to support their family.”
Kenoi has said the ethics reform is not targeted at a single county employee as much as it is just good public policy. But one county worker, Randy Riley, a Department of Public Works division head who unsuccessfully ran against Kenoi in 2008, is part owner of a company that has had a contract for drywell pumping since 1996.
At its peak, in 2008, Kamaaina Pumping invoiced the county $1.26 million, according to records obtained from the county Department of Finance. The company billed the county $714,167 in 2012.
Riley is in charge of the county’s Automotive Division and had no input into how the request for bids was written by a colleague heading the Highway Maintenance Division, according to Department of Public Works Director Warren Lee. Riley’s attorney, Brian De Lima, says Riley no longer holds a controlling interest in the company.
The current county ethics code allows county employees to contract with the county, as long as the contract is awarded competitively by sealed bid. The code forbids employees from using their position to secure advantages or contracts over others.