Ethics Board debates dept.’s authority


“Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself,” seemed the adage of the day Wednesday as the county Board of Ethics considered a complaint that Finance Department officials punished an employee for violating the ethics code without first getting an opinion from the board charged with making those determinations.

At issue was a complaint by former West Hawaii real property appraiser Michael Drutar, who said he was suspended two weeks without pay for allegedly violating the ethics code after he told his supervisor he wanted to disqualify himself from assessing a parcel because he had conversations with the owner in the past in his other job of private-sector real estate agent.

Drutar, who resigned from the department Jan. 31, made several complaints in recent months about what he saw as conflicts of interest by other employees. The Board of Ethics last month unanimously found an employee of the department violated the ethics code when she, following supervisors’ instructions, set tax values on a neighborhood of properties that included her own.

Drutar thought he should not have been punished for violating the ethics code without a hearing before the Board of Ethics.

“If they’re going to interpret on their own, then what’s the point of the Board of Ethics?” Drutar asked.

According to the county charter, the five-member Board of Ethics can “interpret the code of ethics for both county officials and the public and on its own may initiate and render opinions with respect thereto,” among other powers.

Board members are appointed by the mayor and approved by County Council.

The board doesn’t have the power to mete out punishment, but it is, under the charter, allowed to initiate investigations as well as investigate and issue advisory opinions upon the request of individuals and county officers and employees. It must make public any findings of ethics violations.

The board did not act immediately on Drutar’s complaint, but sent it to an April 9 hearing at the request of attorneys for the Finance Department. The board refused, however, a request by Deputy Corporation Counsel Diane Noda for a formal hearing where she could cross-examine Drutar.

“We’d like a clean, clear record,” Noda said. “This has a ripple effect on all county departments.”

That apparently alarmed board member Arne Henricks, who asked if the practice was commonplace.

“Do they have a right to step into our arena and make a finding of violation of the ethics code?” Henricks asked.

A formal hearing isn’t necessary, board members said, because the decision will be law-based, not fact-based. Drutar’s specific complaints about being punished are apparently being handled through the normal human resources and union grievance process.

Last month, board member Douglass Adams took Finance Director Nancy Crawford to task for a letter saying her department investigated and determined there were ethics breaches by an employee.

At that meeting, Crawford apologized for her choice of words.

“We never meant to be stepping on the board’s toes,” she said at the time. “I apologize if it appeared that we were doing ethics investigations.”

She had no further comment Wednesday.

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

 

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