HILO — Union contracts trump the county ethics code, the county Board of Ethics said Monday in dismissing a complaint about United Public Workers employees attending events where union-endorsed candidates campaigned on county time and in county facilities.
The board voted 3-1 that it had no jurisdiction over the issue, even though 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. Union contracts allow the rank and file to be called to two-hour quarterly “educational and informational sessions” and requires the county to provide a meeting place if the union doesn’t have one.
Two unions, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, prohibit candidate endorsement or unlawful campaigning during these sessions. But UPW and Hawaii Government Employees Association do not.
“Legally, I don’t see where we have jurisdiction over this particular issue,” said board Vice Chairman Bernard Balsis Jr. “Because the action is a union action rather than a county employee action and we have no jurisdiction over the union, I would move the petition be dismissed.”
Union contracts are negotiated statewide, with each of the four county mayors getting one vote and the governor getting four votes. But Mayor Billy Kenoi has in the past been able to strike a supplementary contract, extending employee furloughs after the other counties had ended them.
Balsis suggested the county could negotiate to have UPW and HGEA bring their contracts into line with SHOPO and the Fire Fighters. The current UPW and HGEA contracts expire June 30. He also said that the Hawaii County League of Women Voters, which has gone on record urging the Ethics Board to enforce the ethics code in this matter, and other interested groups could “put pressure on the union to stop this sort of action.”
No union representatives attended the meeting or provided testimony. UPW State Director Dayton Nakanelua has defended the practice, saying it was upheld by the courts in 2010 and protected in the union’s contract. He didn’t return a telephone call by press time Monday.
Chairman John Dill was the lone dissenting vote in dismissing the matter.
“I feel that any county employee that knowingly goes to a campaign function at county facilities and county time would be in violation,” Dill said. “This board has no jurisdiction over union activities. However, county employees who are subject to the county code of ethics and are union workers must abide by the county code of ethics.”
The complaint was filed by Kailua-Kona resident Cheryl King 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. Their opponents were not invited.
“Some county workers were uncomfortable at having to listen to speeches by candidates they did not support and did not want to cause problems with their co-workers or supervisors by openly protesting. … The county code of ethics should have protected those workers. It did not,” King said. “If the Board of Ethics does not take a strong stand against this practice it will happen again and public confidence in the county’s code of ethics and the county’s boards and commission will be undermined.”