HILO —An influx of newcomers is giving the Hawaii County Council an unusual opportunity to have all nine elected members meet behind closed doors to choose a new chairman and vice chairman.
Incoming and incumbent council members interviewed by West Hawaii Today have named two of the incumbent council members, South Kona/Ka’u Councilwoman Brenda Ford and Hilo Councilman J Yoshimoto, as possible candidates for chairman. Several also said they’d consider a freshman as chairman, if that’s the consensus of the group.
Ford and Yoshimoto said they aren’t actively seeking the position, but both said they’d consider it if asked.
“At this point, I’m willing to serve in whatever capacity that will benefit the council the best,” said Yoshimoto, who has previously served as council chairman.
Yoshimoto said he’s working to coordinate a meeting, although he hasn’t yet reached all nine council members.
The third returning councilor, Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, said he’s not interested in being the chairman. Instead, he said, he’d like to be able to lobby the Legislature and work with his state counterparts on behalf of Hawaii County.
“That’s my strong point,” Onishi said.
Some incoming council members said they’d consider a freshman as chairman, while others said the learning curve is too steep for a freshman to take on that job. The name mentioned most among those open to a freshman is Puna Mauka Councilman-elect Zendo Kern, who’s chairman of the Windward Planning Commission, which votes on zoning and land-use issues.
Kern said he’s not campaigning for the position but is willing to do whatever the group wants.
Rick Castberg, a retired political science professor, said it would be most unusual, if not unprecedented, for a newly elected council member to be named chairman. That would be most likely to happen, he said, if none of the incumbents could garner the majority.
“If it has happened, it’s something that’s done as a compromise between competing factions,” Castberg said.
None of the newcomers has experience on the council, although North Kona Councilwoman-elect Karen Eoff has worked for years as support staff for the council.
Two other newcomers in addition to Kern have experience on county commissions: Kona Councilman-elect Dru Kanuha and Hamakua Councilwoman-elect Valerie Poindexter served on the Redistricting Commission that drew the new council boundaries.
The state Sunshine Law allows up to four council members to meet to discuss reorganization. But with only three returning incumbents, the entire group can get together in meetings outside the Sunshine Law as long as they do so before the six newcomers are officially sworn in Dec. 3. The discussions must be limited to council reorganization and not legislation, however.
“Before they are sworn in, they are not considered part of the council for Sunshine Law purposes,” said Lorna Aratani, an attorney for the state Office of Information Practices, which deals with Sunshine Law and open records issues.
Council members old and new say they’re eager to meet as a nine-member body, to get to know each other and hash out an organizational plan. The plan would then be voted on during the inaugural council meeting, with public notice and opportunity for public input.
Ford, like Yoshimoto a three-term councilor, said it’s important the group can meeting away from the public eye, because the discussion can get “frank”and the reactions “awkward.”
“We don’t want to embarrass anyone. People are meeting each other and need to be able to talk with each other frankly,” Ford said. “It’s nice just to have a chance to talk and let our hair down. From that point on, it’s life in a fishbowl.”