By NANCY COOK LAUER
What started as an attempt by Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi to find out how much overtime was paid during the 2012 election has blossomed into an audit by an outside firm comparing election expenditures for the last three election cycles.
After a great deal of debate and an unsuccessful attempt to go behind closed doors to discuss it further, the Hawaii County Council on Wednesday unanimously passed a resolution asking the legislative auditor to find out the costs of overtime, training and travel, the use of electricity and printing supplies at the election warehouse, the handling of petty cash, voter registration and absentee ballot efforts and other costs associated with the 2008, 2010 and 2012 elections.
Acting Legislative Auditor Lane Shibata, saying the Clerk’s Office has no certified public accountant, said he had approximately $40,000 in his budget for the fiscal year ending June 30 that he could use for an outside auditor. The process needs to be started right away in order to use that money, he said.
Onishi, a frequent critic of how former County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi handled the 2012 elections, resisted attempts by South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford to add the comparative language, but his attempts to shoot down her amendments, and then to withdraw the bill entirely, failed. He was also unsuccessful in getting the council to agree to an executive session about language in Ford’s amendment dealing with the elections warehouse and other issues.
Onishi said after the meeting he just wanted to know how much overtime was incurred by staff from two other divisions of the Clerk’s Office who were called to work across the hall at the Elections Division to help get the work done.
“I wanted to find out how was the staff being paid,” Onishi said. “We didn’t need to look at past years because they’d never done that before.”
But Ford pushed for the comparison figures.
“That’s the only way you’ll know if something really went awry is if you compare it to the years before,” she said. “I think the public has been very clear that they want the truth. For good, for bad, for ugly, we’re going to get the hard numbers.”
Other council members agreed.
“I’m inclined to think having a comparison gives us a better metric,” said Puna Councilman Zendo Kern. “If we’re going to do it, we should do it right.”
Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan agreed.
“I feel we do have the budget for it,” he said. “I think it’s important for the public to know what’s going on.”
The warehouse is a sticky issue with the county, as allegations of the former warehouse manager using the site to conduct his own sign-making and screen-printing business, as well as alcohol storage and post-election drinking parties there, precipitated the firing of four election workers, including the division chief.
That escalated into union grievance procedures reinstating the workers and defamation lawsuits against Kawauchi and former Council Chairman Dominic Yagong.
Kawauchi had a hard time managing a disgruntled staff, several of whom resisted her management and failed to show up on primary election day. That culminated with late poll openings, incorrectly programmed cellphones, drivers taking election materials to the wrong precincts and other problems. The problems got so bad, the state Elections Office took over the county’s general election.
Cory Harden, testifying before the decision, urged the council to conduct a performance audit and get to the bottom of the election problems. If the county won’t do it and the state won’t do it, perhaps the federal government should step in, she said.
“We need to go way beyond a financial audit,” Harden said. “We need to know what happened. People need to have confidence in the conduct of our elections.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer firstname.lastname@example.org.