Temporary hiring freeze allows new county procedures to be drafted

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Mayor Harry Kim has instituted a hiring freeze while county departments revamp their procedures for selecting job candidates.

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Mayor Harry Kim has instituted a hiring freeze while county departments revamp their procedures for selecting job candidates.

Kim said he implemented the freeze shortly after taking office, but it’s not a hard freeze.

“I told them until each department’s process of hiring is approved by this office, you will not proceed with hiring any employees,” Kim said late Wednesday. “It’s a freeze, yes, but not really a freeze. It’s a halt until procedures are in place.”

Hiring policies and procedures have changed considerably since Kim left office in 2008. The county Human Resources Department restructured and centralized procedures after it implemented a new computerized application system in 2011.

Under those changes, the HR Department, not the individual agencies, runs the help-wanted ads and accepts and screens applications, while a committee from various departments and the mayors office interviews and ranks candidates.

Critics say the centralized process gave too much power to the mayor to select employees from the top official down to the worker who cuts the grass.

Kim said he doesn’t want to pick employees, but he wants the department heads to be able to hire without so much oversight from the HR Department and the mayor. He said HR’s role is to vet candidates and forward the ones who qualify to the department head, who picks the top candidate.

“Human Resources is supposed to tell you who qualifies … the hiring agency conducts the screening and review process,” Kim said. “That was taken away. The mayor’s office was in the interview, and why should it be?”

Sharon Toriano, who was named HR director by the county Merit Appeals Board in late 2013, said the system was meant to complement agency’s hiring practices, not to replace them. The HR director is not a mayoral appointee, but is hired by the Merit Appeals Board.

“We were available to help conduct the interviews if asked,” Toriano said Thursday. “But it was up to the individual department to ask.”

Still, the newspaper regularly fields complaints from members of the public who believe the process isn’t fair and they were given short shrift in the hiring process.

Last year, West Hawaii Today broke stories about former Mayor Billy Kenoi’s campaign manager netting a county management position, and the growing practice of the county to use successive 90-day contract hires rather than going through the civil service merit procedure to hire and promote employees.

“One of the most important things is to be fair,” Managing Director Wil Okabe told the County Council during his confirmation Wednesday. “Giving the community the opportunity to apply for the positions and we want to get the best people that can offer the county the best services possible.”

The county’s legislative auditor has now gotten into the act as well.

Auditor Bonnie Nims, in her annual audit plan submitted earlier this year to the County Council, said she’ll be looking at Human Resources Department policies. She said her office chose this area of scrutiny based on risk analysis and public complaints.

“We will assess controls in place intended to ensure the fair, uniform and transparent selection of the best employee for the position and identify opportunities for business process improvements based on industry best practices,” Nims said in her summary.

Nims couldn’t be reached Thursday, but Audit Analyst Lane Shibata said the office is still in the field work phase of the process, collecting and evaluating information. He estimated the audit should be complete early next year.

Approximately 2,600 of the county’s 190,000 people work for county government. About 57 percent of the county’s operating budget is devoted to their pay and benefits.

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In all, some 12,800 people, about 20 percent of the county’s 63,500 non-agricultural workforce, labors for federal, state or county government on the island, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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