HILO — A move to have the County Council represented by a different attorney than the one representing the mayor was summarily shot down Tuesday by a County Council committee.
The Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development voted 5-2 to send a resolution by Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, an attorney, to the council with a negative recommendation.
“What I see as a conflict of interest is in how I see the corporation counsel is structured,” Wille said, adding that she has nothing personal against Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida. “Government is structured to ensure a separation of power and that contributes to the health of our democracy.”
Wille and Councilwoman Brenda Ford, representing South Kona and Ka‘u, were the two yes votes. North Kona councilwoman Karen Eoff and Hilo Councilman J Yoshimoto were absent for the vote.
The nonbinding resolution would have urged the mayor to “take appropriate steps” so that a deputy corporation counsel could be assigned solely to the County Council and report to that body rather than corporation counsel.
It’s an old issue that’s been discussed many, many times over the years, but this is the first time the new council, with six freshman members, tackled it.
Most council members were skeptical. Several said they wanted more cooperation between the council and the administration than there has been in the past, and splitting legal advisers would take the council in the opposite direction.
“It’s not an environment where we can all work together,” said Puna Councilman Greggor Illagan. “If we fail to do that, the taxpayers miss out.”
“There’s no different laws for the County Council and a different law for the administration,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter. “There’s the law.”
Ford pointed to a lawsuit in the City and County of Honolulu where the City Council won the right to its own attorney. She said she herself has experienced not being adequately represented by corporation counsel in politically charged cases.
Yoshimoto, who is also an attorney, noted that Honolulu has an entire legal department for the City Council, and he worried about incurring additional costs in Hawaii County. He added that the council has a way of hiring an independent attorney as needed with a two-thirds vote. It would take a charter amendment for the council to have its own full-time legal counsel.
Ashida, when called to the table, reiterated that the county charter sets corporation counsel as the top civil attorney for the county. He said having an attorney not reporting to him would create a “lack of accountability.”
“As chief legal counsel, I’m ultimately responsible for the actions of the attorneys who work or the county,” Ashida said.