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‘POI’ creates sticky situation for HR: Merit Appeals Board to take up critical audit

Updated: 
September 25, 2017 - 8:10am

HILO — It’s just a three-letter acronym on a sticky note affixed to an official Hawaii County hiring document.

But for some county job seekers, the word “POI” — short for “person of interest” — represents their worst fears come true. The acronym on a request-to-fill form means there’s already a preferred candidate for the job, even before the position is advertised in an open recruitment.

Such was the case for the position of van driver for the county Department of Parks and Recreation. The $40,000 annual job was advertised in early 2015, despite the designation that a POI was slated to fill it.

In fact, Human Resources Director Sharon Toriano, in the undated note attached to the form, directed that a list of 273 available job seekers, which had another six months before it expired, be reopened for recruitment to allow new candidates, presumably including her POI.

Pre-selecting the winning candidate before a recruitment is announced seems to run afoul of state hiring law, which requires each jurisdiction to establish and maintain a separately administered civil service system based on the merit principle.

“The merit principle is the selection of persons based on their fitness and ability for public employment and the retention of employees based on their demonstrated appropriate conduct and productive performance,” the law states. “It is also the purpose of this chapter to build a career service in government, free from coercive political influences, to render impartial service to the public at all times, according to the dictates of ethics and morality and in compliance with all laws.”

The POI designation for years has been the source of conjecture and complaint inside and outside government corridors. The newspaper has heard it; County Council members have heard it; the legislative auditor has heard it; the mayor has heard it.

“At first, I thought it was just a joke, poi,” Mayor Harry Kim said last week, referring to the pounded taro root that’s a food staple in Hawaiian culture. “Then it was explained to me. I would find it very disappointing if any of it was true.”

A Sept. 7 audit report of county hiring practices made no mention of POI when it criticized how the county solicited and hired employees. But it pinpointed several other problems in an audit that covered just a few positions in three county departments.

“We found numerous questionable hiring practices including how applicants were identified to be interviewed, how applicants were assessed and how departments were using (the Department of Human Resources’) referred list of eligible applicants,” Auditor Bonnie Nims said in a cover letter to the County Council.

Auditors recommended that HR implement procedures to provide adequate controls, including monitoring, oversight and training to ensure the county is in compliance. In addition, HR should develop written policies and procedures defining prohibited personnel hiring practices and consider working with other jurisdictions to define these practices in state law, the audit said.

The issue of county hiring practices is far from pau.

The county Merit Appeals Board, which has the sole authority to hire and fire the HR director, is scheduled to take up the audit at 9 a.m. Wednesday in County Council chambers in Hilo. Also on the agenda is the annual performance evaluation for Toriano. The public can testify on agenda items at the beginning of the meeting.

The County Council is expected to take up the audit when it meets the first week of October.

Toriano, in an interview Thursday, acknowledged she wrote the note and put her initials on the form. She said she didn’t remember why she designated a POI for that particular position and said she didn’t recognize the name of the individual ultimately hired.

Toriano said she used the POI designation only rarely, and then to note that there is a current county employee, perhaps one in a labor relations settlement or having a workers comp issue, who might fit that position. In that case, the agency doesn’t need to recruit for the position, under county procedures.

There was never any pressure from former Mayor Billy Kenoi to hire a specific person for a position, Toriano said.

“I never discussed it with him,” she said.

West Hawaii Today received the document showing the sticky note from a confidential source within county government. A June 5, 2015, public records request by the newspaper for all request-to-fill forms for Parks and Recreation and the Department of Public Works from 2013 to the date of the request returned a stack of forms, including the van driver document without the sticky note attached.

Michael Ben, who served as HR director for 17 years during the administrations of four mayors, including Kim and Kenoi, said mayors generally had a “hands off” policy when it came to who would be hired for specific positions. Ben, who retired in 2009, said department heads would ask for advice such as how to word recruitment ads to get candidates with the best fit, but he doesn’t think they crossed the line.

“I’m glad they did this audit, as bad as it was,” Ben said.

He’s hoping the audit recommendations lead to improvements in county hiring practices.

Toriano says that’s her intention. The county has already completed all but two of the recommendations, she said. Still to be completed are improvements to the county’s computerized hiring tracking system and installation of a hotline for employee comments and complaints.

“The office of the auditor is there to help us improve,” Toriano said, adding what’s past is past. “Now it’s about moving forward to improve.”

A representative of one of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, one of the public employee unions, also hopes to see improvements.

“HGEA was aware of complaints and concerns about hiring and promotion practices during the prior mayoral administration,” Executive Director Randy Perreira said in a statement. “The audit is a step in the right direction — HGEA is reviewing the report and will be monitoring the implementation of the auditor’s recommendations.”

Representatives for United Public Workers, the union representing many of the rank-and-file workers, didn’t return repeated calls for comment last week.

Kim said he’s watching, too. He and Toriano said the two plan to meet soon to discuss the audit.

“I want her to tell me what she will do,” Kim said. “I’m not going to step beyond my authority, nor will I shy away from it.”

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