Hawaii-Tribune Herald, Sunday, July 1, 2012
Onishi, Ikeda come under fire
Ethics complaint filed against councilmen for low attendance
By TOM CALLIS Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii County Council members Dennis Onishi and Donald Ikeda are both facing an ethics complaint targeting their attendance records.
Terri Napeahi, vice president of the Pele Defense Fund, filed the complaint with the county Board of Ethics Committee on June 14.
Napeahi cites the absence of the Hilo council members during recent testimony regarding geothermal power and their attendance rate during votes.
According to figures provided by Chairman Dominic Yagong’s office, the two council members have the worst records when it comes to casting their votes on the ninemember council.
Onishi has missed 30 percent of the 1,557 votes taken in committee and council meetings between Dec. 6, 2010, and April 18, 2012, and Ikeda has missed 23 percent of the votes during that time period.
Percentage of missed votes for the other council members are: Vice Chairman Angel Pilago, 15 percent; J Yoshimoto and Pete Hoffman, 12 percent; Fred Blas, 7 percent; Brittany Smart and Yagong, 3 percent; Brenda Ford, 1 percent.
The Pele Defense Fund had requested the same figures from Yagong’s office.
Yagong said he provided them with the information, rather than sending the request through the County Clerk’s Office, because his office already had compiled the data in response to an earlier records request.
“When they asked me for that, I said we had the information available and we provided that to them,” Yagong said.
A check of the figures by the Tribune-Herald found that Yagong’s office counted some excused absences as votes, but no other discrepancies between their vote tallies and county records was seen. Ikeda and Onishi both said Thursday they were unaware of the complaint.
The council members in separate interviews defended their voting records and said they don’t think they are neglecting their offices.
Onishi attributed recent absences to marathon public testimony sessions that have pushed meetings into the evening hours.
“I know in the past couple council meetings … testimony has been for eight hours,” he said.
“The council meeting started after that. I know I had prior commitments in the evening part and later part in the afternoon.”
Onishi said those commitments included “other meetings in the community.” He said he couldn’t elaborate because he didn’t have his calendar on hand.
While Onishi has missed 471 out of 1,557 votes during that time period, the records show he has only missed three council or committee meetings.
Asked why he makes some votes during a meeting but misses others, he repeated that he has other commitments that sometimes conflict with the meeting.
“At this time I don’t have my calendar in front of me,” he said when asked to elaborate. “I can’t tell you for sure.”
Ikeda has missed 365 votes during that time period, but he said in an interview that he doubts he missed that many.
“I think I have a high percentage of votes,” he said. Ikdea said he couldn’t estimate how many votes he has made or missed.
In regards to the ones he has missed, Ikeda said he gets called out of meetings sometimes to speak to constituents. “I go out and listen to them and as soon as I get done there I come back in,” he said.
Ikeda, who is running for state Senate, said he didn’t have another reason for missing votes. He said he tries not to schedule other commitments during council meetings. Ikeda has missed nine committee or council meetings during that time period. The council holds two council and two committee meetings each month unless a special meeting is called.
All nine council members are voting members of the committees.
Onishi and Ikeda acknowledged that they haven’t sat through all of the public testimony at recent meetings, but said they choose instead to listen to it in their council offices while they catch up on their council work.
“We have video screens,” Onishi said. “I’m listening to the testimony at my office on the computer.”
Napeahi said she thinks it’s important for the council members to be present during testimony so that residents know they are listening.
“They are there to serve the public,” she said.
“They were elected as public officials to listen to the concerns of our people, and they are not engaging with us as we’re giving passionate testimony.”
Ford, who has an almost flawless attendance record, said she sees it as essential for council members to sit through all votes and testimony.
“I think it’s my obligation … to be there as much as possible,” she said.
Ford said she also ensures that her schedule is clear for all council meetings.
“If serving your constituents is your priority, then you will make those meetings your priority,” she said.
Ikeda and Onishi have both voted against several of the recent geothermal bills, supported by the PDF.
Palikapu Dedman, PDF president, denied that the complaint is politically motivated; he said it’s about ensuring that testifiers are heard by all council members.
“We take off work,” Dedman said, “and we only talk to a few people.”
Napeahi said the ethics board will address the complaint during a preliminary hearing July 11.
Renee Schoen, county deputy corporation counsel, said the board decides during those hearings whether to proceed with the complaint further or drop it.
A violation of county ethics rules can be punished by up to $1,000 for each offense. Yagong said there is no attendance requirement for council members, leaving little likelihood that penalties would be issued.
He said he couldn’t comment on whether he thinks the complaint is valid but added that he values attendance at the meetings.
“Do I believe people should listen to those who take the time to come to the council … Do I think that’s important? Absolutely,” he said.
“I think they deserve an audience of the council. That’s who they came to see.”
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.