By NANCY COOK LAUER
On the heels of an intense state Elections Commission inquiry into the readiness of the Hawaii County Elections Office, Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi is now seeking to have the county clerk and elections administrator update the County Council.
The County Council is expected to hear an update at its June 19 meeting at the West Hawaii Civic Center, after Council Chairman Dominic Yagong turned down Onishi’s request to add it to the already packed agenda next Wednesday in Hilo.
Last Wednesday, County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi responded to questions from commissioners about how she’s filling office vacancies and preparing for the coming elections following her firing of longtime Program Administrator Pat Nakamoto and Warehouse Manager Glen Shikuma. The pair, along with two other employees, were fired after allegations surfaced of a private sign-printing business and drinking parties being conducted at a leased county warehouse where election equipment is stored.
The Elections Commission questioning at times got heated, said Kawauchi and Onishi in separate interviews Thursday. Both attended the meeting on Oahu on Wednesday. The matter was put on the agenda following letters Onishi wrote to the state, according to Office of Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla.
“To be perfectly frank, they were not a warm group,” Kawauchi said.
Kawauchi said she told the commission she’d send regular updates to the state office. She tried to reassure commissioners the office is ready, she said.
“I did my best to assure them,” she said. “It’s hard for them because they’re not here.”
Minutes of the meeting were not available Friday. Neither Commission Chairman William Marston nor Brian Nakashima, one of two Hawaii County members, returned telephone messages Friday.
The other Hawaii County commissioner, Margaret Masunaga, said last month that Nakashima had requested the item be put on the commission agenda. But in an email to Kawauchi obtained under the state’s open records laws, Nakashima denied he had anything to do with it.
“I made no request in writing or otherwise that any issue be put on the agenda,” Nakashima said in the May 18 email. “I read the article today and was surprised to see my name mentioned. … Mr. Onishi’s continued concerns apparently have been the reason that the Elections Commission has been called to meet.”
Onishi denied there are political shenanigans going on behind the scenes, at least as far as he’s concerned.
“I just want to make sure we have knowledgeable staff prepared before the primary election. … The top two people have never run an election before,” Onishi said. “I don’t see what I can gain or lose; I just don’t want it where something happens and we have to do the elections over again.”
After being grilled by commissioners, Kawauchi said she’s confident the office will be ready. She said Thursday that she’s continuing to recruit precinct, delivery and control center workers and now has between half and 90 percent of all those positions filled. In addition, she’s conducting public information sessions all over the island, she said.
Quidilla said the state office is working with Kawauchi, as well as election staff from the other counties, offering training and advice as needed. He reiterated that duties between the state and the county are split, with the county responsible for voter registration, absentee voting and storage of election materials. The state is responsible for operating election day polling places, operating the voting system, counting the ballots and reporting the results.
Yagong questioned why Onishi has been taking his concerns to Honolulu, rather than asking Kawauchi herself, whose office is right across the hall.
“I can assure the public the election is under control and people can look forward to a smooth and fair election,” Yagong said.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.