Allegations of a “rigged” election have been dismissed by local Democrats, who vowed Tuesday to create clearer rules governing the process of replacing state lawmakers who leave before their term is complete.
At issue was the Dec. 27 District 5 Council election that sent three candidates to Gov. Neil Abercrombie to replace former Rep. Denny Coffman, who resigned a year shy of the completion of his third term.
Richard Creagan, chairman of the District 5 Council, was one of the candidates and was subsequently appointed to the House by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Creagan recused himself from voting and didn’t attend the meeting where the election was held, although he had the right to do both, under the rules.
Creagan said to his knowledge, all of the local party officials who were also candidates also recused themselves. District 5 covers Kailua-Kona, Kealakekua, Captain Cook, Ocean View and Naalehu.
Lei Kihoi, an attorney for Native Hawaiian issues and member of the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, one of the nine candidates who submitted applications, appealed the election to state Democratic Party Chairman Dante Carpenter, saying she was barred from the meeting even though she was president of a precinct in the district and thus eligible to vote.
Kihoi also accused the district council of barring Hawaii Island Democratic Party Chairman David Tarnas from the meeting and requiring those in attendance to sign confidentiality agreements, according to party emails and documents obtained by West Hawaii Today. Kihoi asked that the election be redone.
“The core question is whether the election on Dec. 27, 2013, was ‘rigged’ in order to bring an expected result,” Kihoi said in a Jan. 6 memo to Carpenter. “My answer is yes.”
The House party process was in marked contrast to two recent procedures filling Big Island democratic seats in the state Senate. In those two cases in 2011, the meeting where the party election was held was open to the public, and the press reported on the finalists immediately after the election.
Both Carpenter and Hawaii Island Democratic Party officials looked into the allegations and determined they were without merit, several party officials said.
“The Democratic Party examined all of the concerns that were raised and determined that what did transpire was in compliance with the Democratic Party constitution and bylaws as well as the Hawaii County party rules,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter said he expects election procedures to be a topic of debate over the coming year at both the county and state levels.
“Things were brought up … we know to be not perfect by any stretch,” he added. “We look forward to lots of discussion and changes of rules regarding elections.”
Creagan said he had also questioned the process because of his concerns that it could be more transparent. Names of the finalists were initially withheld by the governor, the state party and Hawaii Island Democrats. John Buckstead, West Hawaii vice chairman for the local party, ultimately released the names of the finalists four days after Creagan was appointed by Abercrombie.
“I didn’t want to take a position where there was any question,” Creagan said Tuesday. “I was concerned that things were done properly because we hadn’t done them before.”
Creagan said the Senate procedure was smoother because it is more commonplace, as governors more frequently appoint senators to the administration than House members.
The six others who applied for the District 5 House seat in addition to Creagan and Kihoi were Abigail Au, constituent services representative in Abercrombie’s Kona office; Kaliko Chun, a Kailua-Kona resident who has weighed in on several issues before county and state public hearings; Barbara Dalton, governor’s representative in Abercrombie’s Kona office; Una Greenaway, a Captain Cook coffee farmer; Gene “Bucky” Leslie, a retiree and previous candidate for state representative; Michael Matsukawa, a Kailua-Kona attorney; and Steve Sakala, an environmental consultant and proprietor of a Honaunau farm retreat.
The finalists in addition to Creagan were Sakala and Matsukawa. Their names were released Jan. 14, four days after Creagan’s Jan. 10 appointment, by Buckstead, who said in an email, “I have been advised that I have the authority to release the names of the three nominees to the governor for House District 5.”
Tarnas said Carpenter suggested local Democrats study the last three party elections on the island, determine best practices and formulate proposed rules to be voted on at the county convention in May.
He emphasized that there is no cloud over Creagan’s appointment.
“There is certainly no question about anything related to his standing,” Tarnas said. “All that is pono.”
Buckstead referred questions Tuesday to Carpenter. Kihoi could not be reached by press time Tuesday.