Thursday | September 21, 2017
About Us | Contact | Subscribe

Council mulls defense against fired workers

By JASON ARMSTRONG

Tribune-Herald staff writer

The decision to fire four Hawaii County elections workers may soon start costing Big Island taxpayers.

At its meeting Wednesday in Hilo, the County Council will be asked to approve hiring at least one private attorney to defend against two wrongful termination claims seeking more than $1 million total.

Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida, the county's top civil attorney, submitted a last-minute request for a closed-door meeting with lawmakers. He wants to discuss similar damage claims from Pat Nakamoto, the longtime elections program administrator, and Glen Shikuma, who had supervised a rented Hilo elections warehouse.

On Wednesday, Ashida made a "request to hire special counsel" regarding the former workers' monetary demands.

"Time is of the essence," he wrote.

The timing of Ashida's letter triggered a revision and redistribution of the council's agenda.

"Because the executive session hasn't occurred, I'm not able to disclose any of the details," Ashida said when asked Sunday why one of the attorneys working in his office can't defend the county against the claims.

He also declined to reveal how much outside legal representation might cost taxpayers or discuss the merits of the former workers' allegations.

Meeting with the council on Wednesday will be the "first step," Ashida said, adding he would reveal details following the meeting that's set to start at 9 a.m.

Shikuma, a 13-year Elections Division employee, was fired in October for allegedly drinking alcohol at the rented 210 Makaala St. facility and using it to operate a private printing business.

It's against county law for employees to use government time, equipment or facilities for private business. Also, the county has a no-alcohol policy.

Shikuma has denied any wrongdoing.

Nakamoto, who started working for the Elections Division in 1982, served as Shikuma's boss for at least the last several years. She was terminated Jan. 6, along with Elections Division employees Shyla Ayau and Elton Nakagawa.

In separate claims, Nakamoto and Shikuma are each seeking $500,000 for allegedly being libeled, ridiculed and made to suffer impairment to their "enjoyment of society." Shikuma also is seeking an additional $50,000 for alleged property damage.

" ... My clients' professional reputation and standing in the community have been ruined," Hilo attorney Ted Hong said on their behalf Jan. 20, the same day he filed their claims.

Hong alleged his clients' supervisors knew about the drinking parties, that no alcohol was consumed in the rented warehouse or two accompanying parking stalls, and that Shikuma performed free printing jobs for the county.

The terminations should not have happened, Hong said Sunday.

"Now we're going to have the taxpayers pay for this litigation and award, and for what purpose?" he said.

He also questioned if Ashida's secrecy is legal under Hawaii's Sunshine law mandating open meetings.

"I think that's certainly a matter of public record," Hong said of revealing why county attorneys cannot defend against the claims.

"Those guys can do it," he said. "They're very good attorneys."

Hong should know. From 1993 to 2000, he served as Hawaii County assistant corporation counsel, the junior position to the one Ashida has held since 2000.

Hong said while he was assistant corporation counsel, the office "routinely" used staff attorneys to indemnify and defend county officials.

Within hours after visiting the Hilo elections warehouse last July, Council Chairman Dominic Yagong ordered that the building's locks be changed and that an independent investigation of its use be undertaken.

Although the final decision to fire the four workers was made by County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, a senior appointee of the Yagong-led council majority, Yagong was involved in that decision-making process, he said earlier this month.

The Hamakua lawmaker could not be reached Sunday evening to comment on the need to hire a private attorney to fight the former workers' claims.

Kawauchi has offered a "no-comment" response when asked about the claims, which must be filed before the former workers may sue the county in court.

Email Jason Armstrong at jarmstrong@hawaiitribune-
herald.com.