HILO — A divided county Ethics Board couldn’t muster the votes Wednesday to proceed on a request forwarded by state Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago for an investigation into County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong’s involvement in the county Elections Division.
The Ethics Board’s 2-2 vote effectively killed a motion to proceed with the investigation. Voting yes were Chairman John Dill and board member Glen Hisashima. Voting no were Vice Chairman Bernard Balsis Jr. and board member Arne Henricks.
Dill urged the board to conduct an investigation to help restore public confidence in the office. He said Yagong, who as council chairman oversees the county clerk, who in turn oversees the Elections Division, could have a conflict of interest if his oversight is operational and procedural, because of his daughter’s candidacy for the County Council District 1 seat.
“Perception is a lot when we’re dealing with these things,” Dill said.
But others weren’t convinced that Yagong did more than state to the media he was going to be more involved in elections operations after a primary election that was fraught with problems. He told the board he conducted a meeting with elections staff before he backed off because of Nago’s Aug. 31 letter asking for an investigation. Following Nago’s Oct. 2 announcement that the state Office of Elections will be running the Nov. 6 general election, rather than the county, the issue may have been made moot, they said.
“I think we’ve gone far enough,” said Henricks, a retired judge.
State Elections Office spokesman Rex Quidilla said the office has no comment on the vote.
The board vote came after members grilled Yagong about his current and past involvement with the Elections Division.
“I have no idea as to what was discussed between the state office and the Clerk’s Office,” Yagong said. “I honestly do not know.”
The tenor of Wednesday’s meeting was a dramatic departure from the first meeting on the issue last month. At that meeting, Dill and Yagong came to a tense standoff after Yagong asked Dill to recuse himself, claiming he had his own conflict of interest. According to Yagong, Dill had personally called Yagong in 2009 and asked him to give his brother a job. Yagong said he didn’t hire the brother.
Dill denied the call ever happened, leading to a continuation of the September meeting so that Yagong could file an affidavit declaring Dill in conflict, as is required by the rules of procedure. Yagong did not file the affidavit, and other Ethics Board members agreed Wednesday that Dill didn’t have a conflict.
Asked outside the meeting why he didn’t file the affidavit if his allegations were true, Yagong said, “If I’m going to take that up, I’m going to take that up as a separate complaint.”
In other actions Wednesday, the Ethics Board postponed until its November meeting a discussion on whether union-sanctioned candidate campaign speeches can be held on county time at county facilities. Board members said they needed more time to study collective bargaining agreements and state-level ethics opinions on the issue.
A complaint was filed after a West Hawaii Today article described how 538 county employees and their state counterparts were sent to two-hour “educational and informational” meetings on the clock at the West Hawaii Civic Center and other county facilities to listen to a union-endorsed lineup of candidates. The candidates’ opponents were not invited.
United Public Workers State Director Dayton Nakanelua has defended the practice, saying it was upheld by the courts in 2010 and protected in the union’s contract. The state Ethics Commission doesn’t offer an opinion on county activities.
But Section 2-83 of Article 15 of the Hawaii County Code of Ethics prohibits county employees from using county time, equipment or facilities for campaign purposes. In addition, the code requires fair treatment, in that officers and employees are not allowed to use their positions to secure or grant “unwarranted privileges, exemptions, advantages, contracts or treatment.”
The Ethics Board also postponed action on a complaint from a journalist that County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi “stonewalled” her requests for meetings and information. The board wanted to give staff time to collect relevant documents, such as a media registration form, from Kawauchi.
Dill recused himself from the discussion, because he had written a letter July 25 to the state Attorney General’s Office, seeking an investigation into how Kawauchi was running the county Elections Division.