Board still trying to reform rules so it can penalize officials for ethics breaches

The county Board of Ethics is trying to add teeth to what has historically been a paper tiger, more than a decade after the County Council gave it authority to fine public officials who violate the ethics code.

A January 2008 ordinance sponsored by former Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong and signed by Mayor Harry Kim gave the board authority to fine top public officials, including the mayor, council members and department chiefs and deputies, up to $1,000 per violation for ethics breaches.

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The Board of Ethics, however, hasn’t updated its rules and procedures to reflect the fines, so they haven’t gone into effect.

The board has been working on rules reforms, but members worried during a meeting Wednesday that the county needs changes to either the county code or the charter to accomplish its goal.

“I think we have a seriously flawed ethics process,” said Vice Chairman Ken Goodenow, the latest member to take up the baton of ethics reform.

Board member David Wiseman, a retired judge, agreed it would be difficult to impose fines under the current structure.

“Any good attorney could create a Pandora’s box out of this if their client is issued a fine,” Wiseman said.

Goodenow, also an attorney, thinks the County Council can create the language necessary to allow the Ethics Board to levy fines without a charter amendment. But he’s deferring to attorneys employed by the county.

Code changes could be accomplished relatively quickly by the County Council, but changes to the charter — the county’s foundational document — would have to go to the ballot for voters to approve. That wouldn’t happen until November 2020, at the earliest.

“A lot of the recommendations are to provide better service to the public,” said board member Nan Sumner-Mack. “I hate to see it dropped for two years.”

Board members voted unanimously to seek an opinion from the county Corporation Counsel on whether there is authority for the County Council to clarify the code without a charter amendment. In order to cover all its bases, the board also unanimously passed a motion to submit a proposed amendment to the county Charter Commission for the 2020 ballot.

Two members of the local League of Women Voters’ Ethics Committee have been attending all the meetings and following the conversation during the past year. They seemed optimistic after the meeting Wednesday.

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“I’m glad they’re going through the process,” said Armon Collman. “I think Ken’s doing an excellent job in his review of the code.”

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

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