Council, county attorney at odds over contingency funds

It might take a change to the Hawaii County code to resolve a dispute between the County Council and Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela over use of discretionary funds.

Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles said she remains at a standstill with Kamelamela over one of her contingency funds requests, which the council approved last May. The $2,500 grant was meant to assist a nonprofit group, Orchidland Neighbors, with planning and design for a community center in the private subdivision.

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But Kamelamela denied the funds because he said the county code doesn’t allow them to be used on private capital projects.

That prompted complaints from Ruggles, who disagrees with the interpretation, and other council members who think the county’s chief attorney is interfering too much with their contingency accounts.

Ruggles said she intends to introduce a bill to amend the code. In the meantime, she said Kamelamela agreed to address legal concerns over the funds at a council meeting before they get approved.

“He’ll actually be counseling us, which I believe is his role,” Ruggles said.

Last week, she led a discussion about the issue with Kamelamela during a Finance Committee meeting, which ended without a resolution. The council voted to continue the matter March 13.

Kamelamela said then he is trying to ensure the appropriations comply with the county code and meet a public purpose.

“I’m looking at what the case law has on it,” he said, regarding his review. “Everything I put down on paper is supported by law as it exists today.”

In a Nov. 3 letter, Kamelamela wrote to Ruggles regarding the request: “For a non-profit organization to qualify for a grant, it must provide a ‘service’ or ‘activity’ addressing specific concerns or needs directly to the public. The planning, designing and permitting of a community center is not a ‘service or activity.’”

Ruggles said activities at the center, such as a farmers market and disaster preparedness training, would benefit the public. She said she sees it as a way to improve infrastructure in the district.

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Each council member received $75,000 in contingency funds for this fiscal year. Funds are passed through a county department, and requests are reviewed by a department head and the Mayor’s Office before reaching council.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.