Embattled county clerk gets County Council support


HILO — Following a daylong session Monday with most County Council members expressing support for County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, Council Chairman Dominic Yagong said he’s planning a trip to Honolulu this week to meet with state officials to help mediate tension between Kawauchi and the state Elections Office.

Kawauchi has come under increasing fire from Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago for primary election day mishaps that resulted in 13 of the county’s 40 polling places opening late, four by a minute or two and five within half an hour, but two by 90 minutes or more.

Sniping between Kawauchi and Nago has escalated to the point that Kawauchi on Monday sent a letter to the governor asking for an independent investigation of the state Office of Elections and also that the Lieutenant Governor’s Office oversee the state office. In a return email, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz said the office has no jurisdiction, and suggested the county take it up with the Legislature to change the law.

“The administration will make certain that the Office of Elections and the county clerk work together to execute a well-run election. The law does not give my office jurisdiction or control over the election process,” Schatz said. “Now is not the time for blame-shifting. Now is the time to focus on solving the problem at hand.”

The election got off to such a rocky start that Gov. Neil Abercrombie issued a proclamation giving Hawaii County polling places an extra hour and a half to remain open.

A West Hawaii Today analysis found the three West Hawaii precincts that opened late were among the four with the worst voter turnout in the county. But Nago, in his own investigation, said the slow start didn’t change the outcome of the election, a statement Kawuchi seemed to agree with in her own report.

In the report she delivered Monday to the County Council, Kawauchi said a single election “can” that was supposed to go to Waimea was accidentally delivered to the West Hawaii Civic Center, causing a domino effect when Deputy County Clerk Steve Kawena Lopez picked up three other West Hawaii cans that had been left behind to deliver after he took the 45-mile trek from Kona to Waimea. That resulted in all four precincts opening late, Kawauchi said.

Other problems included telephones not programmed correctly and a driver carrying ballots receiving a telephone call about a road closure ahead, forcing a time-consuming detour when no such closure actually occurred.

“I was outraged that the materials were left behind and I can understand why people are extremely concerned with the delayed openings,” Kawauchi said. “Polling places opening 1.5 hours late is totally unacceptable. I can assure the public that this mistake will not happen again.”

Lopez defended himself, saying he did only what he was told. He said he doesn’t want to be cast in the role of scapegoat.

“Since my appointment to deputy county clerk, I have never had the latitude of independent decision-making. All my activities are at the direction of the clerk,” Lopez said. “Clearly understanding my work environment, I characterize myself as a good soldier. … I followed all orders to the best of my ability believing the direction knew much more than I.”

Kawauchi was seeking an independent investigation of what went wrong, in the hopes of rectifying errors before the Nov. 6 General Election. But most council members didn’t agree an investigation was needed and others advocated the council take a hands-off approach to the Elections Division.

“I don’t think we need an investigation,” said Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, who plans to go to the state Elections Commission meeting in Honolulu on Wednesday to ask for help. “We all know what happened. It’s because we had staff that was inexperienced.”

The problems with the county Elections Division started in January, when Kawauchi fired Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto and three other employees when evidence surfaced about a private sign-making business and drinking parties being held at the county elections warehouse. The county has a zero-alcohol tolerance policy.

Following a union grievance process, Nakamoto and one of the other employees were reinstated. But Nakamoto, who was supposed to return to the job July 30, didn’t come back, Kawauchi said.

Kawauchi’s shortage of seasoned staff was exacerbated just days before the election, when the acting elections administrator and two other key employees unexpectedly took sick days and didn’t show up for work until the following week.

The 20 members of the public who spoke were about evenly split between supporting Kawauchi and pointing out problems with the election.

“It’s time to cut our losses,” said Susan Irvine of Hilo, a 25-year election observer.

Irvine and Nago had written to Mayor Billy Kenoi in April asking that he act quickly so Nakamoto could be back for the election.

But Marti Simpson, a 30-year Waiohinu resident, spoke in Kawauchi’s defense.

“No one, least of all Ms. Kawauchi, should be punished or condemned for unearthing the wrongs in the Elections Office and trying to correct said wrongs,” Simpson said. “She is not the one who should be called to task for the wrongdoings of others.”