HILO —The Hawaii County Elections Office at the West Hawaii Civic Center was closed Monday and part of Tuesday after a temporary worker assigned to the office was terminated.
A sign posted on the door directed visitors to take their elections business to Building G, where elections workers are holding early walk-in voting through Thursday.
County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi said Tuesday evening that, after discussing the issue that afternoon with state Deputy Attorney General Aaron Schulander and county Assistant Corporation Counsel Katherine Garson, she has decided to allow voters to drop their completed mail-in absentee ballots at the early walk-in voting sites, a practice she thinks was not allowed in the past.
The office, which shares space with the Office of Housing and Community Development, reopened Tuesday afternoon staffed solely by Deputy County Clerk Steve Kawena Lopez, who routinely works from that office.
The temporary worker, Odetta Shimoza, works for Altres Staffing, a 20-year-old company that currently holds the county contract for elections workers. She is one of two temporary workers recently released. The other was Lena Alali, an elections clerk in Hilo who performed public relations and advertising duties.
“We are a temporary staffing agency,” said Michelle Conrey, Big Island regional manager for Altres. “It’s not unusual that employees are released.”
She said employees may be released early for budgetary reasons, lack of enough work or other factors. Conrey said there are currently 10 Altres staffers working in elections.
“We take our direction from the client,” Conrey said. “They’re not obligated to use our people.”
Shimoza and Alali could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Both Conrey and County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi declined to go into specifics about the reasons behind the workers’ terminations, citing privacy laws pertaining to personnel matters.
This is the second election that the Clerk’s Office sought bids from a temporary staffing agency to handle election clerks, said county Purchasing Manager Gilbert Benevides. Human Resources Director Ron Takahashi said prior to 2010, the elections clerks came from the Department of Labor.
Kawauchi said so few people had visited the Kona elections office, it made more sense to cut that temporary position and add one in Hilo, where ballots are processed and counted. Of the 10,000 mail-in absentee ballots that have so far been returned, only seven of them were brought to the Kona office, she said.
Several East Hawaii voters have discovered a new problem with the absentee ballots — the inner and outer envelopes are arriving at their homes sealed shut by the humidity.
Keaau resident Francine Pearson, who has a background in the printing business, said she thinks the county didn’t use the “tropical glue” required in this climate. She said she was told the Elections Office isn’t accepting ballots in envelopes that are taped shut, for fear of tampering.
Pearson said she ultimately surrendered her mail-in ballot and voted at early walk-in voting in Hilo, which continues through Thursday.
Kawauchi said voters can also bring their ballots to the Hilo Elections Office, and have a clerk witness them taping the envelopes shut. She said she’d be looking into a self-sealing envelope for the General Election, if the sealed envelopes are a widespread problem.
Even the termination of a temporary clerk has drawn attention because of the spotlight thrown on what has become a highly politicized office.
The controversy started in January when Kawauchi fired Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto and three other employees following an investigation that alleged drinking, storage of alcohol and the operation of a private business out of the county elections warehouse on Makaala Street. Nakamoto is on paid leave after winning a union employee grievance process.
Confidence may have been further eroded when Kawauchi closed the Hilo office July 23 to analyze the voter registry, and then later by Kawauchi ’s revelation that she found some 50 to 60 duplicate entries, as well as indications that five people voted twice in the 2010 election.
Kawauchi, who started her tenure as county clerk in 2011, turned the matter over to the state Attorney General’s Office, then remained closed-mouthed with the media about what was going on.
But Kawauchi said late Tuesday that Hawaii County early walk-in voters are out-pacing their Oahu counterparts as a percentage of registered voters, and mail-in ballots continue to flow in.
“The election is running smoothly. The voters are an indicator,” Kawauchi said. “They’re voting, we’re processing, it’s working.”