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Proposal would give County Council power to censure absent members

  • RUGGLES

Should Hawaii County Council members lose pay if they don’t do their job?

That’s an issue that has come up since Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles announced in late August she will not be attending meetings to avoid committing war crimes against the Hawaiian Kingdom, which she said would occur if she voted or introduced legislation. Council members are required to vote at meetings they attend.

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With her term ending next month, District 5 residents who feel let down by their representative don’t have enough time to replace her through impeachment or recall.

The County Council also might lack authority to punish their colleague since the issue isn’t addressed in the county charter.

Ruggles, who has missed the past six council meetings and many more committee meetings, said she will continue to receive her $5,834 per month ($70,008 per year) salary.

But two years from now, voters might get a chance to enact a contingency, should such a situation arise again.

Bobby Jean Leithead Todd, a member of the county Charter Commission, said she is drafting a proposed change to the charter that would allow a majority of the council to censure a member and suspend their pay if they miss three consecutive meetings without being excused.

Leithead Todd, a former council member and county department head, said it’s based on a similar rule used by the City and County of Honolulu.

If supported by the commission, the proposal would be sent to the County Council for consideration before making it on the ballot in 2020.

Leithead Todd said the proposal is about making sure residents don’t lose their voice at the council.

“There’s nobody speaking for them,” she said, referring to District 5 residents. “I think this is the first time anything like this has happened in Hawaii County.”

Leithead Todd said she expects the commission to consider the proposal during its December meeting.

Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter asked the commission in September to consider taking up the issue.

As for Ruggles, Poindexter said late last month that the council is “just waiting for Puna to get proper representation.”

Council member-elect Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder will begin representing the mostly Puna mauka district Dec. 3.

He was elected in the August primary. Ruggles didn’t run for re-election.

Her unspent council contingency funds will rollover to the next term. Poindexter said Ruggles has one staff member still on the payroll.

Ruggles, who often spoke about Puna not getting its fair share of county resources, has missed 179 votes (not including votes at council committees) since August, including key votes on measures affecting Puna’s recovery from the Kilauea eruption. She has continued to raise the issue of the overthrow of the kingdom, which occurred in 1893, and sent letters to The Queen’s Medical Center and state judges alleging they are committing war crimes.

Ruggles has said she will be “putting every agent of the United States on notice concerning the rights of protected persons.”

She didn’t return a voicemail seeking comment Wednesday. Ruggles has said she won’t vote or introduce legislation until she is assured she won’t be committing war crimes.

County Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela responded to her questions, stating she would “not incur any criminal liability under state, federal and international law” by carrying out her duties as an elected official.

Ruggles said she wasn’t satisfied with the response and wants a more detailed opinion.

Letter writers to the Tribune-Herald have criticized her for continuing to receive a pay check while not attending meetings for the remainder of her term.

“Jen, if the government is not valid, why do you still take a pay check from the taxes I am paying you to represent me?” asked Donald Jacobs of Keaau in a letter to the editor.

However, her actions have been applauded by those who see the United States as an illegal occupier. They say it’s an occupation because annexation occurred without a treaty between the nations.

“We believe the path she has taken is the correct path,” said Bobby Yamada, who is part of a hui organizing workshops on the overthrow and subsequent annexation.

He said the council should allow her to attend meetings even if she doesn’t vote. Under council rules, silence is considered a yes vote.

Yamada said he expects lawmakers on other islands to start asking similar questions about the kingdom’s status by the end of the year. He’s optimistic that international pressure will ultimately force the United States to give up its claim to the Hawaiian Islands.

“In the very near future, it will happen,” Yamada said, regarding restoration, “because the recognition is happening internationally as well as the local level.

“… How can the United States speak out of two sides of its mouth?”

The matter was addressed by the state Supreme Court in the recent decision in favor of the Conservation District Use Permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope, slated to be built on Maunakea. Some of the project opponents argued the state can’t approve the construction of the telescope on the mountain because they say it isn’t a legal government.

In referring to its opinion in State v. Kaulia, the majority opinion says, “We reaffirm that ‘whatever may be said regarding the lawfulness’ of its origins, ‘the state of Hawaii … is now a lawful government.’”

Hawaii and Texas were both admitted through a joint resolution of Congress, the opinion notes, and that the U.S. Supreme Court gave “tacit recognition” of the annexations.

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“The United States Supreme Court has thus indicated that the process by which Hawaii was incorporated into the United States was lawful and binding, and we are bound by this determination,” the justices wrote.

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