HILO — Sitting at a dais draped with fragrant lei, a new Hawaii County Council took office Monday afternoon, and immediately fell into disagreement about who should be in charge.
The nine-member council features just three old hands, with a supermajority of six freshman members taking the dais for the first time.
Hilo Councilman J Yoshimoto, as expected, was named chairman, and freshman North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff vice chairwoman. Yoshimoto had served as chairman during the 2008-2010 session; Eoff has almost a decade of experience as legislative support staff.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford and Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille voted against Yoshimoto’s chairmanship and Eoff’s vice chairmanship. Ford, a six-year councilor facing term limits, had indicated previously that she would serve as chairwoman if asked, while the third incumbent councilman, Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, had said he wasn’t interested.
“There were two senior members of this council who were interested in being chair, and I felt one should be chair and one should be vice chair,” Wille said, adding that she thinks Eoff is qualified, but Wille doesn’t agree Eoff should have been named vice chairwoman.
Ford declined comment about her votes.
Freshman Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter and Onishi disagreed that a veteran council member should be vice chairman.
“I think we need some healing on our island, and I think Karen can build these bridges,” Poindexter said.
“It would be great that one of the new members be vice chair because they could learn the process and we could pass on the baton to the next generation,” Onishi said.
A new clerk, Stewart Maeda, took over the County Clerk’s Office from controversial former clerk Jamae Kawauchi, and Maile David, a legislative staffer who unsuccessfully challenged Ford for her council seat, was named deputy clerk.
Mayor Billy Kenoi, serving as the acting chairman until Yoshimoto was named, said before the meeting that he has high hopes for the new two-year session.
“I’m very excited,” Kenoi said. “They seem very energized; they seem very committed to their constituents. Everyone has really embraced the spirit of cooperation and corroboration.”
The council also worked on changes to the rules requiring council attendance. The changes follow complaints made to the Board of Ethics earlier this year about Onishi’s attendance record. The Ethics Board said it had no jurisdiction because absenteeism is not an ethical violation and referred the matter back to the council.
The new rules require council members to give reasons for their absences. Repeated absences could result in censure of the council member, under the rules.
Other rule changes clarify the agenda and how public statements are taken and attempt to streamline the council process
But a move to end council meetings at 6 p.m., unless two-thirds voted to continue, faced opposition from the public and several council members.
John Olson, testifying from Puna, was among several who took issue with the council aiming to complete its work by 6 p.m.
“The business of the people needs to be done when the people are there to witness the business you are doing,” Olson said, noting that many people work until 5 p.m.