Council scraps plan for behind-the-scenes budget panel after getting state’s opinion

The County Council dropped its plan to work on the budget out of public view, after the state Office of Information Practices issued an opinion saying a subcommittee as structured would violate the Sunshine Law.

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz withdrew her plan during Tuesday’s Finance Committee meeting. Although the Finance Committee has discussed the ad hoc committee since Feb. 20 and four members were appointed, Kierkiewicz said the group did not meet.

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“I want to make that very clear for the record none of the committee members for the budget ad hoc committee have met,” she said.

Council members said the committee was needed to scrutinize county spending in the short time allotted to create an annual budget by June 30. Several chafed against the restrictions imposed by state law, and noted that their counterparts in the state Legislature don’t have to abide by the same rules.

A few testifiers from the public urged the council to be careful about setting up a committee.

“It has the potential to be used as a means of getting around the Sunshine Law,” said Charles Grigsby, a retired engineer from Waikoloa. “We don’t want to establish a precedent of the County Council not conducting its business in a public forum.”

A so-called “permitted interaction group” made up of less than a voting majority is allowed to meet out of public view to formulate recommendations, under the Sunshine Law. But the law allows the group to simply assemble, submit one report and then disband, said OIP staff attorney Jennifer Brooks in an April 3 letter in response to a request for an opinion by county Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela.

Kierkiewicz’s proposal went further than that, creating a committee that would submit reports through three phases of investigation. Brooks’ letter said the committee could do that if it had public meetings and otherwise complied with the Sunshine Law.

“I think its best that we dissolve this body at this time,” Kierkiewicz said. “However, I am not deterred. … I do have a plan to tackle the financial procedures after this budget is over.”

Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, who tried to create a similar committee last year, said county lawmakers need more flexibility to probe budget problems in their efforts at reining in spending.

“We have had about a 27% increase in our budget in two years and if that’s not giving pause to the public, it should,” Richards said. “I’m all for transparency. But I’m also for efficiency.”

Council Chairman Aaron Chung of Hilo agreed. He noted that the state Legislature specifically exempted itself from the rules.

“We all want to do things that are open, transparent. I think we all try to adhere to those principles,” Chung said. “But there is something more important than all of that. And that is our responsibility to the people. And our responsibility is to make good decisions made on sound information.”

“Sometimes those two principles clash,” he added. “But remember, the overriding principle is, we have to make good responsible decisions.”

Finance Committee Chairwoman Maile David, who represents South Kona/Ka‘u, last year declined to allow the special budget committee to be created, saying the subject matter was too broad to fit within Sunshine Law boundaries. This year, she allowed the process to go forward.

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“I think all of us here that sit here, I feel we are all very, very committed to our legal process because we are the legislative branch,” David said. “I’m happy that we’ve all come to this mindset that no matter how good our intentions are, we’re all bound by the law and the process.”

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

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