Council to weigh conflict of interest over corporation counsel


By NANCY COOK LAUER

Stephens Media

The perennial question of whether corporation counsel has a conflict of interest representing both the mayor and County Council will again be debated by County Council members Tuesday.

At issue is Resolution 53 by Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, an attorney who thinks the county’s chief civil attorney shouldn’t be a member of the mayor’s Cabinet and also represent the council. She cites the separation of powers between the County Council, which is charged with setting policy for the county, and the mayor’s administration, charged with implementing the policy.

“The role and responsibilities of the executive and legislative branches counterbalance each other, such that the two naturally have adverse interests,” the resolution reads. “When the interests of the executive branch and the interests of the legislative branch are at odds, as a member of the mayor’s political cabinet, the corporation counsel understandably demonstrates a closer alliance to the interests of the executive branch.”

It’s an old issue that’s been discussed many, many times over the years, but this is the first time the new council, with six freshman members, will tackle it.

Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida defends the current situation as creating consistent representation of the county, and creating greater transparency by providing the same advice to all branches of county government. He said changing it would create adversity where none currently exists.

“Our office represents the county of Hawaii,” Ashida said. “The advice we give the mayor is the same advice we give the council. That creates a very workable, very efficient system.”

Currently, Ashida and his chief deputy, Assistant Corporation Counsel Katherine Garson, represent the County Council. Other deputy corporation counsels are assigned to various departments and boards and commissions.

Wille, along with South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford, voted against Ashida’s confirmation earlier this month. Wille at the time said she didn’t have anything against Ashida, it’s just she thought the situation posed a conflict. She did not return a telephone call for further comment Thursday afternoon.

The nonbinding resolution urges the mayor to “take appropriate steps” so that a deputy corporation counsel could be assigned solely to the County Council and report to that body rather than corporation counsel. The resolution is scheduled for the council’s committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Ashida said he hasn’t discussed the resolution with Mayor Billy Kenoi, but he thinks it’s a bad idea.

“We can’t have basically rogue attorneys out there doing what they want, doing the bidding of the County Council or just one council member,” Ashida said. “I’m the chief legal officer. Nineteen attorneys are hired by me and they report to me.”

Short of a charter amendment, there’s little the council can do to change how it is represented. The charter clearly states the corporation counsel represents the County Council as well as the mayor, county agencies and county employees in the course of their official powers and duties. The County Council can by a two-thirds vote hire special counsel for “any special matter presenting a real necessity for such employment,” according to the charter.

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

 

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