HILO — Some 538 Hawaii County employees and their state counterparts over the past few weeks were sent to two-hour “educational and informational meetings” on the taxpayers’ dime, where a union-endorsed lineup of candidates made their case for election.
The practice isn’t illegal for state employees, according to a 2000 opinion from the state Ethics Commission, the most current opinion available. But Les Kondo, executive director for the commission, said Monday the commission doesn’t favor campaigning on government time and in government facilities.
“It’s inappropriate to use state resources, including state time, for campaign purposes,” Kondo said.
The meetings, attended by county and state workers in United Public Workers Bargaining Units 1 and 10, were to be held during working hours July 2, 3, 23 and 24, according to a May 22 memo from county Human Resources Director Ron Takahashi to eight county department heads, obtained by West Hawaii Today.
Candidates giving speeches included Mayor Billy Kenoi, County Council candidate Brad Westervelt, U.S. House candidate Mufi Hannemann and a spokesman for U.S. Senate candidate Mazie Hirono, according to two rank-and-file meeting attendees, one from Hilo and one from Kona. The union handed out blue sheets with the endorsed candidates’ names, they said. West Hawaii Today is withholding the names of union members who came forward because of their fears of reprisal.
Kenoi’s presence at the meetings particularly sparked comments from the workers who spoke with West Hawaii Today. One worker said he hadn’t voted in the previous election, but after hearing Kenoi speak, he decided to vote for him. The other said he favored a different candidate and thought it unfair his candidate wasn’t offered a chance to speak.
One was “disgusted,” the other “perplexed,” by a type of union meeting both said they’d never experienced.
Both said Kenoi promised increased benefits for union members but didn’t specifically ask them to vote for him, although one said Kenoi said give him “four more years … give one other chance.”
“(They) pay us with taxpayers’ money for go sit down and listen to politicians,” he said.
“I did like Billy Kenoi’s speech. It was very encouraging,” said the other worker. “He wants to continue doing what he’s done in the past.”
Kenoi denied campaigning at the event, adding “that’s not what this is about.”
“I was invited by the UPW leadership,” Kenoi said. “I went there to thank the workers for all their hard work and to promise that I would continue to work hard and to work fairly.”
Meeting sites included these government venues: the West Hawaii Civic Center, North Kohala Public Library, Waimea Civic Center, Honokaa High School Cafeteria, Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium and Naalehu School Gymnasium.
The meetings cost county taxpayers anywhere from $15,978.60 to $28,695.28 in salaries alone, based on Unit 1 monthly pay ranges from $2,731 for an entry-level employee to $4,907 for the top worker-supervisor category. Factoring in the allowed but undefined “reasonable” travel time to and from the meeting probably doubles that amount.
Westervelt, who is running for the District 6 council seat, confirmed Tuesday that he gave a campaign speech at the West Hawaii Civic Center. When asked in a telephone interview if he thought campaign forums are an appropriate use of taxpayer money, Westervelt broke the connection and did not call back.
But Councilwoman Brenda Ford, who is running against Westervelt for the open South Kona/Ka‘u seat, had plenty to say about the practice.
“As a former union steward on the mainland, I absolutely support the right of the unions to take two hours or whatever to talk to their union employees,” Ford said. “I absolutely disagree with any electioneering by union management or by candidates on county property and on county time … It should be flat-out illegal for anyone to campaign like this … what’s next? Bring in your ballot to the meeting and let them fill it out for you?”
UPW State Director Dayton Nakanelua defended the practice, saying it was upheld by the courts in 2010 and protected in the union’s contract.
The state Ethics Commission doesn’t offer an opinion on county activities. Those are covered in Hawaii County by the county Board of Ethics, which usually doesn’t offer opinions unless someone asks for one or files a complaint.
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.
The state Ethics Commission’s 2000 opinion cites the union’s legal right to hold the meetings and says union officials may promote candidates at the meetings as part of their First Amendment rights. Incumbents are not allowed specifically to ask for votes, but it’s a gray area that is defined on a case-by-case basis, Kondo said.
The Ethics Commission cited the same concerns in its 2000 opinion.
“The commission believed that the public did not expect that its state employees be subjected to partisan political campaigning during state work hours. The commission introduced (unsuccessful) legislation to amend HRS section 76-102 in the 2000 legislative session to prevent the use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize such political campaigning,” said the 2000 opinion.
While the unions cite their First Amendment rights to hold the meetings, the same rights apparently don’t hold true for rank-and-file workers. West Hawaii Today has been told time and again by workers there is a blanket prohibition against their talking to the press.
Hawaii County Public Works Director Warren Lee said the purpose of the prohibition is to make sure accurate information goes out to the public. He declined to say whether employees are punished for talking with the media.
“I am the department spokesman and they should refer all calls to me,” Lee said.
The workers have said they don’t necessarily fear being fired — that would entail grievance processes where information could come out — as much as they fear retribution in the form of harassment and being assigned the least-desirable shifts and duties.
UPW Unit 1 employees are primarily blue-collar, nonsupervisory positions. The county does not have any Unit 10 positions, composed of state prison, health care and emergency workers, according to a county Human Resources spokeswoman.