HILO — Saying “poor performance” is not addressed in the ethics code, the Hawaii County Board of Ethics on Wednesday dismissed a complaint against Hilo Councilmen Donald Ikeda and Dennis Onishi.
The complaint, brought by Hilo resident Terri Napeahi, alleged the two councilmen’s attendance and voting records violated the 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 3-0 that it did not have jurisdiction over the matter. They referred Napeahi to Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, who Chairman John Dill said has the authority as “the boss” of the council to require attendance or draft a bill to change the code.
“There are ways to change the code of ethics … but this has to go to the County Council if this code is lacking and it looks like it is,” Dill said. “(Yagong) has leadership over the council. He can take action to address this more specifically than we can.”
Napeahi brought an analysis conducted by Yagong’s office at her request, which showed Onishi missed 30 percent of votes taken between Dec. 6, 2010, and April 18. Ikeda missed 23 percent.
There are no attendance requirements for council members, although the council is required to meet twice a month, and it cannot hold a meeting without a quorum. The county 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. Councilors are paid about $49,000 a year.
“I don’t know how a county employee as a councilman doesn’t come to work and doesn’t do the job we pay you for,” said Robert Petricci, one of a handful of testifiers.
“You’re here to represent the public, and if you do not attend the scheduled public hearings, you won’t know what the public wants,” added testifier Katrina Culana.
Ethics commissioners seemed to agree with the argument, but said their hands are tied by the ethics code.
“This particular complaint, if I may say, is a complaint of poor performance by two councilmen,” said Commissioner Bernard Balsis Jr. “Poor performance is not addressed in the ethics code.”
Onishi and Ikeda were present at the meeting, but didn’t address the board. In separate interviews afterward, both pointed out the position was considered part-time, and both also said committee and council meetings, which are supposed to be held the first and third Tuesdays and Wednesdays of the month, have been diverging from that schedule, making it hard for them to plan ahead.
The group angry about the attendance records is mostly comprised of members of the Pele Defense Fund and other Puna residents upset about the rejection of recent bills addressing the geothermal plant there. Ikeda said he was visiting sister cities in Korea and on Okinawa as part of his council duties during some of the votes. He went on his own dime, he added.
“It’s kind of an unfair statement to say we’re not paying attention,” Ikeda said. “We are paying attention. It’s not that we aren’t listening. We are listening.”
“I apologize if I offended people if I wasn’t there when they testified,” said Onishi. “The chairman’s been changing the dates. … When he changes the dates, it’s hard for me to change my appointments.”
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 a more recent analysis conducted by his office. He declined to say whether he would take his fellow councilmen to task, as suggested by Dill.
“We thought the Ethics Board would punt that issue,” Yagong said.
Yagong is working on, if not requiring attendance, at least shining a light on attendance records. He said he could do that by offering a rule change in the council that would create a monthly report showing attendance and votes.
Yagong compared it to his first bill of the 2010-2012 session requiring the Finance Department to list change orders and contract extensions in a monthly report.
“By requiring the report, I think it’s actually changed the culture,” Yagong said. “The amount of change orders have been reduced dramatically.”