HILO —Fired Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto is getting her job back, following a union grievance and a decision from the county Human Resources Department.
Nakamoto’s reinstatement comes just as the county Elections Office prepares for a Thursday voter registration deadline for the Aug. 11 primary election. While officially reinstated, Nakamoto has not yet come back to work.
Nakamoto, along with warehouse manager Glen Shikuma and two other employees, were fired in January after County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi found private sign-making equipment and storage of alcohol at the elections warehouse and discovered that post-election drinking parties were being held on the premises. Shikuma’s case has been referred to arbitration, and the status of the other two employees was not known at press time Tuesday.
“Ms. Nakamoto has reluctantly accepted some disciplinary action and has been reinstated to her position,” said Randy Perriera, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association. “Ms. Nakamoto very clearly believes she has not done anything wrong and has unfairly been characterized as a political pawn.”
Nakamoto couldn’t be reached for comment, and messages conveyed to her through HGEA were not returned.
Perriera accused the Clerk’s Office of “dragging its feet” on reinstating Nakamoto following the decision, which was sent to the union June 19.
“She should have been reinstated by now,” he said. “The clerk’s got to know this is the directive that the contract and the law provides. Our expectation is it’s going to happen.”
Kawauchi said her office is in the process of consulting with Corporation Counsel and the Human Resources Department. She said she’d met with HGEA representatives as recently as Monday, and there was no mention “that I was dragging my feet.”
“The Clerk’s Office wants to be sure that the public understands that they are the priority,” Kawauchi said. “We’ll do everything we can to ensure that there’s a fair and well-run election and our emphasis is on serving the public.”
The County Council, by a 4-4 vote on April 17, refused to concur with Corporation Counsel’s recommendations on a settlement offer in the case, leading to it going to the Step 2 grievance process with the administration. The discussion was held in executive session, so it’s not known what the recommendations were.
Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, in an interview Tuesday before news of Nakamoto’s reinstatement emerged, was critical of the process that has Mayor Billy Kenoi’s administration deciding matters for the legislative branch.
He also noted the county’s zero-tolerance policy for alcohol.
The County of Hawaii Alcohol-Free Workplace Policy, put into effect Jan. 1, 1995, states in part, “Employees are prohibited from consuming alcohol on county premises regardless of whether they are on work or nonwork status. … Violation of this policy shall be subject to appropriate disciplinary action, including dismissal from county employment.”
Previous county clerks, however, wrote letters in Nakamoto’s defense, saying the post-election parties were a tradition and allowed by the office, even if there was alcohol there.
“It would be a sad day in the history of the county if our administration does not have the courage to enforce its own alcohol policy,” Yagong said.
Yagong, who is running against Kenoi, said the county HR department had asked to be recused from the Nakamoto case with HGEA in addition to Shikuma’s case with the United Public Workers Union. UPW agreed to send the case to a neutral third-party arbitrator; HGEA did not.
“It’s concerning to me that a department that has already said it has a conflict is forced to hear the case,” Yagong said. “If there’s a conflict, there’s a conflict.”
HR Director Ron Takahashi in an Oct. 5 Stephens Media article acknowledged a 20-year friendship with Shikuma and said they belong to the same small golfing club, which has up to 15 members. That led to a possible conflict of interest, so Takahashi bowed out.
In the early morning hours following the 2010 general election, Shikuma was arrested and charged with drunken driving just a block away from the Makaala Street warehouse location, according to Stephens Media published reports. He was later convicted and sentenced for the DUI violation.
It’s not known why the administration wanted to be recused from the Nakamoto case. Takahashi said he wasn’t at liberty to discuss the details.
“I felt it was the right thing to do at that time,” Takahashi said.
He said after HGEA declined to go to arbitration, the office “looked at our obligations, did our legal research and felt we were obligated to hear it.”
Deputy Human Resources Director Sharon Toriano told West Hawaii Today in early June that her office had been delegated by Kenoi to handle the case. She said then she would submit a report and recommendations to Kenoi. Toriano is on vacation and couldn’t be reached for further comment; Takahashi said he doesn’t know if she kept Kenoi abreast of developments or the outcome.
Kenoi has repeatedly said he has nothing to do with the case. He did not return a detailed message on his cellphone Tuesday.