The Hawaii County Democratic Party leadership unanimously approved new rules governing how to fill vacancies in the Legislature, following a controversy last year filling the District 5 post vacated by former state Rep. Denny Coffman.
Coffman, a Democrat representing the district covering Kailua-Kona, Kealakekua, Captain Cook, Ocean View and Naalehu, resigned a year shy of the completion of his third term.
The District 5 Council of the party hosted a special election Dec. 27 to pick three candidates to send to Gov. Neil Abercrombie. The closed nature of the election, coupled with a grievance from a losing candidate, inspired the county party to change the rules.
“Hawaii County Democrats are committed to an open, transparent and democratic process to fill any vacancy in the state Legislature,” Hawaii County Democratic Party Chairman David Tarnas said Tuesday. “The rule clarifies and codifies a process that meets those criteria.”
The new rules, unanimously approved by delegates at the Hawaii County Democratic Party convention Saturday in Hilo, set forth clear guidelines to replace a state rule that currently leaves the process open to the district councils.
“The selection process for a state House or Senate vacancy shall be conducted in a public place, accessible to district party members,” the new rule states.
“All party members, the public and media shall be allowed to observe the process.”
The state Democratic Party will take up the issue at the state convention May 24-25 in Honolulu. If approved, the rule changes will apply statewide.
State Party Chairman Dante Carpenter said he expects election procedures to be a topic of debate this year at the county and state levels.
“Things were brought up … we know to be not perfect by any stretch,” Carpenter said earlier this year. “We look forward to lots of discussion and changes of rules regarding elections.”
Tarnas himself was barred from the Dec. 27 special election to fill the post.
Richard Creagan, chairman of the District 5 Council, was one of the candidates and was subsequently appointed to the House by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Creagan recused himself from voting and didn’t attend the meeting where the election was hosted, although he had the right to do both, under the rules.
Creagan said, to his knowledge, all of the local party officials who were also candidates also recused themselves.
Lei Kihoi, an attorney for Native Hawaiian issues and member of the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, one of the nine candidates who submitted applications, appealed the election to Carpenter, saying she was barred from the meeting even though she was president of a precinct in the district and thus eligible to vote.
Kihoi also accused the district council of requiring those in attendance to sign confidentiality agreements, according to party emails and documents obtained by Stephens Media Hawaii. Kihoi asked the election be redone.
Carpenter and Hawaii Island Democratic Party officials looked into the allegations and determined they were without merit, several party officials said.
The House election process was in marked contrast to two recent procedures filling Big Island democratic seats in the state Senate.
In those two cases in 2011, the meeting where the party election was hosted was open to the public, and the press reported on the finalists immediately after the election.
Creagan said he also questioned the process because of his concerns it could be more transparent. Names of the finalists were initially withheld by the governor, the state party and Hawaii Island Democrats.
John Buckstead, West Hawaii vice chairman for the local party, ultimately released the names of the finalists four days after Creagan was appointed by Abercrombie.
The finalists in addition to Creagan were Steve Sakala, an environmental consultant and proprietor of a Honaunau farm retreat, and Michael Matsukawa, a Kailua-Kona attorney. Their names were released Jan. 14, four days after Creagan’s Jan. 10 appointment, by Buckstead.
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