Yoshimoto wants councilors attend meetings in person; New council chairman also seeks time limit


HILO — Councilman J Yoshimoto intends to run a tight ship when he takes the helm of the Hawaii County Council on Dec. 3.

The incoming chairman is revising the council’s internal rules to curb late-running meetings and to allow for the censuring of council members who skip too many meetings.

The majority of the amendments were proposed by councilwoman-elect Margaret Wille, with additional input by Yoshimoto and councilwoman-elect Karen Eoff. They will be introduced and discussed at the council’s Dec. 3 meeting.

“Most of these (amendments), they’re to make it a little more accountable to the public,” Wille said.

Current language in the council’s rules lack an attendance enforcement mechanism and only provide that members who cannot attend a meeting must give a written notice to the chair of the council or the respective committee.

Yoshimoto’s proposed rules require the absent council member to give a “clearly explained” reason for the absence, and that “repeated absences from in-person attendance by any council member may be cause for censure.”

“That amendment addresses the concerns of some council members missing meetings,” Yoshimoto said.

Council members Dennis Onishi and Donald Ikeda were hauled before the county Board of Ethics in September after complaints by members of the Pele Defense Fund that they missed votes and did not attend public hearings before voting on issues of public concern.

But members of the Ethics Board said “poor performance” is not addressed in the ethics code and, claiming a lack of jurisdiction, referred the complaint to Chairman Dominic Yagong, whom they said could change the rules of the council to compel attendance.

Yoshimoto’s proposed amendments appear to do that.

“Again, it’s just trying to be more accountable to the public,” Wille said.

In addition, council members who appear by video conference will no longer be allowed to stay in their home districts without cause. While Ikeda, Onishi and Fred Blas attended council meetings in Kona remotely from the County Council chambers in Hilo, the proposed new rules will reduce that practice.

Requests by council members to attend meetings via video conference will be granted only “for compelling, urgent or unusual circumstances,” and that request will be read on the record prior to public testimony and recorded in the minutes.

“That amendment tries to encourage council members to attend the meetings at the same location,” Yoshimoto said.

“It’s trying to discourage video conferencing,” among council members, Wille said. “Basically trying to make it that everybody is there together and that we function, I think, more effectively.”

Another proposed change would require a council vote to continue past 6 p.m. In previous years, including when Yoshimoto was chairman, hot-button issues would have council members take public testimony for as long as seven or eight hours before starting discussion on agenda items, turning council meetings into endurance contests that stretched late into the night.

The new language proposes that “all council and committee meetings shall conclude by 6 p.m. absent a two-thirds vote of all council members in attendance. The meeting shall be continued to a future date as soon as is practicable.”

This is done, Yoshimoto, said, to “address concerns about the long meetings and allowing us adequate time to address the issues. So in other words, allowing us to go into 9, 10 o’clock (p.m.), there’s an idea that maybe we should end at a regularly scheduled time, and if we’re not finished we just continue the meeting to the next day, or another day.”

To keep those meetings on track, another amendment states that people who share the same or similar points of view on a topic “may testify as a group with one spokesperson.” That spokesperson, the proposed rules say, shall list the names of all people in the group in attendance. This listing of names will not count against the spokesperson as part of the time allowed for public testimony.

“It’s for the public’s convenience. If there’s 50 people, one person can go up there and say hey, ‘I’m representing the 50 people who are here in favor of this particular bill,’” Yoshimoto said.

At the same time, people retain the right to give individual testimony to the council.

In a change from the current practice, council members will be allowed to ask testifiers a question, and may request additional information.

Yoshimoto said those questions should be limited to nonsubstantive queries that clarify issues for council members.

Another change relates to the presentation of certificates and commendations for individuals who have achieved distinction. Today these awards for Boy Scouts reaching the rank of Eagle or dedicated community servants are presented at the start of council meetings. If approved, these commendations would start at a designated time, such as 9:10 or 9:15 a.m., with the public testimony starting at another time stated in the agenda — say, 9:30 a.m.

“If we had the certificates and other things, the public would have to wait around. So this is more of a convenience scheduling change for the public,” Yoshimoto said.

“All of these (amendments) are sort of works in progress, as I see it,” Wille said. “I mean, I consider procedure really important, and I’m very much into due process and fairness and accountability and transparency.”

But she said she’s open to further amendments if the proposed rule changes don’t work out.