By NANCY COOK LAUER
The state Elections Commission will hear concerns about Hawaii County’s Elections Office at its May 30 meeting, according to one of its commissioners.
The meeting comes almost five months after four county elections employees, including Program Administrator Pat Nakamoto and Warehouse Manager Glen Shikuma, 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 employees have appealed their termination and are now in various stages of the grievance process allowed by their collective bargaining contracts, after the County Council refused a settlement offer that would have given them $10,000 each, a public letter of apology and their jobs back.
Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi has been raising questions about how the office is being managed with the loss of senior staff. He’s written letters to elections commissioners and the state’s chief election officer detailing his concerns. On Thursday, he’s flying to Honolulu to meet with the state ombudsman, Onishi said.
“I’m just concerned about the whole election issue. I want to make sure that the voters of this island have a fair and open election,” Onishi said. “I don’t want to see, because of unexpected events, we might have to do a new election. That’s why I want to get the state involved.”
Among concerns Onishi wrote in his letters were that unauthorized county employees and officials, including active candidates for election, have been seen in restricted areas of the office where confidential documents are stored. Onishi also said employees from other departments who are filling in for elections workers aren’t trained in the process and longtime volunteer control center and poll workers have said they won’t volunteer this year because they are upset about the firings. He also said employees have a lot of complaints they’re afraid to bring forward for fear of retaliation.
Onishi provided copies of letters from anonymous volunteers saying they won’t participate in the election this year. Mayor Billy Kenoi has also received a rash of letters, some from volunteers and others just supporting Nakamoto and asking she get her job back.
Kenoi told Stephens Media he’s doing his best to stay out of the fray. The Elections Office is run from the Clerk’s Office and controlled by the County Council, but Kenoi’s Human Resources Department is involved because of the collective bargaining agreements.
“I read all my correspondence,” Kenoi said when asked if he was aware of the letters.
County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi said Friday she sent a memo May 7 to County Council members and office staff, telling them certain areas of the Elections Office are off-limits. She said the incident she was aware of was an office employee who went into the restricted area unknowingly, and who since sent an apology.
“It was innocent. It was one of our employees,” Kawauchi said. “She didn’t know.”
Kawauchi added personnel handling confidential information are trained to not leave documents in plain sight, and to turn documents face-down on their desks when they are away from them.
State Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago, in a May 9 letter addressing Onishi’s concerns, said in combined state and county elections, duties 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.
“We recognize that your elections division is challenged by a steep learning curve, a monumental task and limited time,” Nago said in the letter. “The Office of Elections has made it clear to the county clerk and her staff that we are available to provide assistance with regards to state election matters.”
State Elections Commissioner Margaret Masunaga, a Hawaii Island appointee of former state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, and deputy planning director for the county in its Kona office, said the Elections Commission meets at 10 a.m. May 30 in Honolulu.
Kawauchi said she will be attending the meeting.
“Yes, I will be attending the meeting and I look forward to answering any questions the commission will have,” she said.
Masunaga said the agenda hasn’t come out yet, but she’s aware the county issue is on it at the request of fellow Hawaii Island Commissioner Brian Nakashima, an appointee of former Chief Justice Ronald Moon. Nakashima couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
“He doesn’t speak too much, but when he does, everybody listens,” Masunaga said of Nakashima. “When he wrote, I took that seriously.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.