By NANCY COOK LAUER
Two days before the Aug. 11 primary, state and county officials were aware that a “blue flu” was about to hit the Hawaii County Elections Division, resulting in the election day absence of more than half of the permanent division staff — including the top administrator.
The last-minute scramble to reassign those duties no doubt contributed to what was probably the worst election day in county history, when 13 of the 40 polling places opened late, telephones were incorrectly programmed and a myriad other problems led to voter complaints and, ultimately, a state takeover of what had been county election duties for the Nov. 6 General Election.
“As you might surmise, the Office of Elections was understandably concerned to learn that the services of certain Hilo elections staff will not be available on election day,” state Chief Election Officer Scott Nago said in an Aug. 9 letter to Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi. “We now understand that you anticipated months ago that some election workers might not show up this week or on election day, and as such, you developed a backup plan.”
The letter, among almost 400 pages of documents Nago’s office provided to Stephens Media in partial fulfillment of an Oct. 5 public records request, went on to offer Kawauchi assistance if she needed it.
Stephens Media made similar records requests to Mayor Billy Kenoi, Council Chairman Dominic Yagong and Kawauchi. As of press time, Kenoi and Yagong produced what they claimed were all relevant records, Nago had produced only some of the requested documents and Kawauchi none at all.
“All along, she said everything was under control,” Nago said on Friday, “And we had no reason to believe it wasn’t.”
He declined to speculate about whether the loss of four of the seven permanent elections staff caused or contributed to the problems. Kawauchi agreed that more information is needed before it’s known why the election went so far off track.
“I think that is a matter that deserves investigation,” Kawauchi said. “I’ve been asking for an investigation for some time now. … Without an investigation, you can’t really tell what caused the problems on election day.”
Right now, Nago said, everyone is focusing on the General Election. A more thorough investigation of the primary is likely to come after that, he said.
“It’s something we will look at and make sure it’s never repeated again,” Nago said.
The state Legislature is likely to demand an explanation, as well. Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, said he’s going to ask the state auditor to investigate. He’s waiting until after the General Election, he said.
“The reason we are waiting is because we don’t want to add any obstacles to a fair and balanced election next month,” Green said. “We appreciate that the state has taken over for the next one. … All that I want is for every vote to be counted. I don’t care who’s in charge, as long as that happens.”
Nago’s correspondence over the past year documents an increasingly hostile exchange with Kawauchi, as he attempted to help direct the clerk, a novice to elections who faced disgruntled poll workers and the absence of seasoned elections staff. His efforts appeared to be for naught, as Kawauchi, beset with criticism from some members of the media and a county councilman, seemed determined to go it alone.
Her actions — such as abruptly closing the Hilo office for a day while she conducted an audit on what she saw as errors in the voter registration list, removing a temporary worker and leaving the Kona office unstaffed after the worker took unauthorized breaks to work in Kenoi’s office — only added to criticism that began when Kawauchi fired longtime Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto and three other workers in January.
The Hawaii County Police Department is currently investigating the voter registrar problems, Kawauchi said. The discrepancies in the voter registration database include indications that some people voted twice in the 2010 election.
The original workers’ firings six months after Council Chairman Yagong and Kawauchi reportedly discovered evidence of alcohol use and a private business being run out of the county’s Makaala Street elections warehouse unleashed a firestorm of investigations, ethics complaints and lawsuits, some of which remain unresolved. Nakamoto and two other workers have been reinstated, although only one has returned to work. Another has taken a similar position on Kauai, and Nakamoto remains on leave. One of the fired workers, warehouse manager Glen Shikuma, 59, died of an aneurysm Aug. 21.
Police Capt. Mitchell Kanehailua, who oversees the Hilo area Criminal Investigations Division, said in June that police collected materials and information related to three allegations: trademark violations associated with possible counterfeit labels, second-degree theft of county resources and a county ethics code violation of fair treatment of county officers and employees, an allegation related to using county resources for campaign purposes. The case is in the hands of the county prosecutor’s office.
The state’s election officials are a close-knit group, both on the county and state level. In fact, Nakamoto is in a live-in relationship with Nago’s old boss, former Chief Election Officer Dwayne Yoshina. Nago and elections administrators from the other counties leapt to Nakamoto’s defense in letters to Kenoi.
“Ms. Nakamoto has many years of experience and institutional knowledge in regards to the administering of elections in the County of Hawaii,” Nago said in an April 17 letter to Kenoi. “As the elections administrator for the County of Hawaii, Ms. Nakamoto has worked successfully with her counterparts in the Office of Elections and the other counties. To the extent her appeal results in her eventual reinstatement, it is clearly better that it occur as soon as possible so she may contribute to the successful execution of the 2012 elections.”
Nago said the state has hired experienced election workers to handle the new state functions in the General Election. Nakamoto is not among them, he said. She remains a county employee.
Citing personnel privacy issues, Kawauchi declined comment on which three of the more recent seven full-time staff other than Acting Elections Administrator Arlene Boteilho didn’t show up for work, or if any employees were disciplined for their absences. Boteilho is on leave from the county and couldn’t be reached for comment.
“If there’s any day an election worker should come to work, it’s on election day,” an apparently distraught Kawauchi said shortly after the primary.
Kawauchi did announce Sept. 24 that she’d assigned a new temporary elections administrator and workers in three other positions. The assignment of Acting Elections Administrator Lehua Iopa marked the third head of the division since Kawauchi took over.
Seasoned Elections Division workers weren’t the only ones in short supply for the primary election. Poll workers, control center workers and other temporary and volunteer helpers also contracted the blue flu.
“My friends and I are adamant. We are not going to volunteer as long as (fired elections workers) are not reinstated or treated fairly,” said former County Clerk’s office employee and 20-year control center worker Arlene Waugh, in an April 18 letter to Kenoi. “Maybe our absences will not matter, but consider it our way of protesting as to the underhanded and evil ways of someone who seems to have something against these people.”
Kenoi signed boilerplate replies to each letter.
“The situation you refer to in the county’s Elections Division is a personnel matter subject to privacy laws and collective bargaining agreements,” Kenoi’s letters said. “Therefore, it is inappropriate for me to make any comment except to say that the administration is committed to the fair treatment of all citizens and residents of Hawaii Island.”
Kawauchi and Nago, meanwhile, have kept up a series of behind-the-scenes sniping over certain election-related issues, while maintaining a public facade of professionalism and cooperation. The main objective, both said on Friday, is to work together to ensure a smooth-running General Election.
When asked, Kawauchi said only that her relationship with Nago is “professional.”
“In the last couple of weeks, we have publicly expressed our difference of opinions on the implementation and execution of the 2012 primary election in the County of Hawaii. This has caused the public to lose trust in the integrity of the election and question the reliability of the general election,” Nago said in an Aug. 23 letter to Kawauchi. “As we proceed toward the general election, I propose we commit to rebuild our partnership between our offices to pursue the implementation of a secure, open and honest General Election for the voters.”
That partnership apparently didn’t work out, and on Oct. 2, Nago held a surprise news conference on Oahu, announcing the state was taking over Hawaii County’s General Election activities.
Nancy Cook Lauer can be reached at email@example.com.