If, as Woody Allen claims, “80 percent of life is showing up,” the Hawaii County Council is getting there.
The current County Council has a much better attendance record than previous councils, but there’s still room for improvement for certain members.
That’s according to a West Hawaii Today analysis of voting records in council and committee meetings from December, 2012, when the new council was seated, through April of this year. The latest analysis shows North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff with the best attendance record, missing just three of the 912 votes, a scant 0.3 percent, during the 16-month period.
Eoff, a freshman council member who also chairs West Hawaii meetings as the vice chairwoman, said she hadn’t missed a day since she joined the council, although she must have slipped briefly out of the room during those three votes.
“I consider that my priority,” Eoff said. “I think that was what I was elected to do, and I do my best to schedule around our council meeting days.”
Coming in last was Hilo Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, who missed 93 votes, more than 10 percent. Onishi said his duties as vice president of the Hawaii State Association of Counties and board member of the Western Interstate Region of the National Association of Counties have sometimes pulled him away from council and committee meetings.
Onishi said the problem is exacerbated when the council changes its scheduled meeting days, often after he’s already made other commitments.
A combination of a majority of freshman councilmen whose enthusiasm for the job is still at its peak, along with new attendance rules the council adopted in 2012, likely led to the improved attendance. The new rule states that repeated absences by a council member may be cause for censure.
But Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who drafted the new rules, says there are still problems with council members showing up for attendance and then ducking out until it’s time to vote, a problem she says does a disservice to the public who come to testify. Wille also wants to see fewer council members participating by videoconference from a remote site.
“We all have divergent points of view,” Wille said. “The level of discourse is higher … we work together better when we’re all there together.”
Onishi and another councilman, former Hilo Councilman Donald Ikeda, were the subjects of a 2012 complaint before the Board of Ethics on the attendance issue. During that period, Onishi missed 30 percent of the votes, according to an analysis by former Chairman Dominic Yagong’s office.
The complaint, brought by Hilo resident Terri Napeahi, alleged the two councilmen’s attendance and voting records violated the ethics code’s “fair treatment” provisions because the councilmen not only missed votes, but also did not attend public hearings before voting on issues of public concern.
The Ethics Board voted it had no jurisdiction over the matter, with Commissioner Bernard Balsis Jr. saying, “Poor performance is not addressed in the ethics code.”
Yagong, whose own 27.9 percent missed votes record came under scrutiny in a 2009 West Hawaii Today analysis, missed just 3 percent of votes in the 2012 analysis conducted by his office.
There are no attendance requirements for council members in the county charter, although the council is required to meet twice a month, and it cannot hold a meeting without a quorum. The charter doesn’t specify, but many people consider council membership a part-time job in that members don’t turn in time sheets, or get overtime or vacations.
Hawaii County Council members get paid $48,000 a year to represent their constituents, and the chairman gets $52,000.
Puna Councilman Zendo Kern, with the second-lowest attendance, could not be reached for comment. Kern missed 68 votes, or 7.5 percent of the total voting opportunities.
Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan, who had the second-best attendance, missing 27 votes, or 3 percent of the total, said working on legislation is the top job of a council member.
“If you’re not there to represent your constituents, how will the other council members know what your constituents want,” Ilagan asked.
Puna Councilman Dru Kanuha and Wille tied for third with each missing 33 votes, or 3.6 percent.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford, who had a near-perfect voting record in the 2009 analysis, missed 38 votes, or 4.2 percent, this term. She said she missed two entire days of meetings when she suffered an allergic reaction to medication she was taking. Ford agreed that attendance is very important; but medical issues can’t be helped, she said.
Medical issues torpedoed attendance records for Council Chairman J Yoshimoto of Hilo and Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter as well. Yoshimoto missed 49 votes, or 5.4 percent, and Poindexter missed 64 votes, or 7 percent.
Poindexter said she had major surgery, but came back much sooner than the six to eight weeks her doctor recommended. She said she didn’t vote at the committee and council meetings she missed, but she did listen in by having her staff run a speakerphone from the sessions.
“I needed to keep up on the issues,” Poindexter said. “If you get too far behind, it’s hard to catch up.”
Yoshimoto had missed just 1.2 percent of the votes in 2009. He said this term he missed two whole days when he became ill.
“In essence, voting is the most effective way of representing our constituency,” Yoshimoto said. “As council members, we’re there to represent our constituency and voting is a very important part of that duty.”