HILO — Fired county Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto has attended campaign events for her former boss Ken Goodenow, who’s running for County Council, an action one opponent says calls into question her ability to remain neutral should she get her job back.
Nakamoto was fired in January, along with elections warehouse manager Glen Shikuma and two other elections workers, after a private investigator hired by County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi reportedly found evidence of a private sign-making company and alcohol consumption at the county job site. The employees are currently going through the union grievance process.
Goodenow, a former county clerk, is challenging Hilo Councilman J Yoshimoto for the Hilo District 2 council seat. Yoshimoto, a three-term District 3 council member, was pushed into District 2 when the Redistricting Commission redrew the East Hawaii boundaries to create a second Puna council district. Two other candidates, Rachel Thompson and Steve Wilhelm, are also in the race.
Goodenow’s campaign website had displayed several photos of Nakamoto and her boyfriend, former state Chief Elections Officer Dwayne Yoshina, attending an April 14 volunteer meeting for Goodenow’s campaign. Both are wearing name badges and are sitting at a table covered with campaign materials.
Yoshimoto was one of four council members on the losing end of a settlement agreement that would have given Nakamoto her job back. When contacted Friday, he said he’d always supported her in the past because he thought she did a good job. But now he has doubts, he said.
“When I first saw the photos (on Goodenow’s website), I was surprised because I thought she was trying to get her job back,” Yoshimoto said. “I think there’s a clear conflict of interest and it gives rise to the appearance of impropriety if she gets her job back. The elections administrator needs to be neutral and just run the election.”
The elections administrator is in a unique position in county government because not only does that individual have control over the voting equipment and absentee ballots, he or she is also privy to confidential voter and candidate information.
“You can’t be the election administrator running the election and be campaigning for someone,” Yoshimoto said. “That just doesn’t look good.”
Attempts to reach Nakamoto by asking Goodenow and her attorney, Ted Hong, to contact her were unsuccessful Friday. Neither Nakamoto nor Yoshina have published telephone numbers.
But Goodenow defended Nakamoto, saying she’s his neighbor, and she came along to the volunteer events on a couple of occasions with Yoshina, who’s consulting on Goodenow’s campaign.
When he was county clerk, were there rules about Elections Division employees remaining neutral? Goodenow characterized it as an informal understanding, rather than a rule.
“There was always an understanding that elections officers not campaign, but everyone has the freedom to support who they want on their own time,” he said.
When asked why the Nakamoto photos have recently been removed from the website, Goodenow said he’s been doing some major revamping of the site, removing some photos and adding more material.
“I’m in the middle of updating my entire website,” Goodenow said. “I’m ramping up my website.”
Goodenow, as Nakamoto’s former boss, has also been writing letters in support of Nakamoto getting her job back. He said he wrote a statement and gave it to the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the union handling Nakamoto’s grievance. He also was one of four former county clerks who signed a more general letter of support, he said.
Following the County Council’s rejection, Nakamoto’s grievance has moved on to the next step — an appeal to Mayor Billy Kenoi. The county Human Resources Department is now considering her case and is expected to make a recommendation some time in the future, Deputy HR Director Sharon Toriano said last month.
Kenoi said Friday that he’s leaving the case totally up to HR, and he doesn’t know when it will be resolved.
Hong also defended Nakamoto’s right as “a terminated county employee” to support whom she chooses on her personal time. He praised her for being fair and impartial throughout her career.
“This is smoke being blown by some people who want to dump on her professional reputation,” Hong said.