By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
Councilwoman Brenda Ford is asking a judge to rule that Department of Environmental Management Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd is not qualified to hold that position because she doesn’t have an engineering degree.
In a petition filed Thursday in 3rd Circuit Court in Kona, Ford’s attorney, Michael Matsukawa, cites the county charter’s requirement that the DEM director have “an engineering degree or a degree in a related field.”
“Since the respondent Bobby Jean Leithead Todd does not have an engineering degree or a degree in an engineering-related field, the respondent does not have the qualification required to hold the office of director of the Department of Environmental Management for the county of Hawaii,” the petition states.
Ford referred questions to Matsukawa on Monday. Matsukawa said the petition speaks for itself. The petitioners are seeking legal fees from the county, in addition to a ruling that Leithead Todd be “restrained from performing the duties of that office,” according to the petition.
Mayor Billy Kenoi characterized the petition as “no more than political grandstanding,” and seemed assured the judge will see it his way.
“We’re confident that we had a legal basis to choose the best qualified person for the job,” Kenoi said.
It’s unusual for a sitting council member to sue the county. But it’s not the first time for Ford, who sued her colleagues in 2009 over allegations they violated the state Sunshine Law when they reorganized, naming a new council chairman and removing her as chairwoman of the council’s Public Works and Intergovernmental Relations Committee. West Hawaii Today also sued over the Sunshine Law issue, and the newspaper’s case was settled after the council rescinded its original reorganization and then re-reorganized with the proper notice.
Kenoi had named Leithead Todd to the position in a Cabinet reshuffling earlier this summer. The County Council last month confirmed her on a 6-3 vote, with South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Ford, North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff and Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille voting no.
A parade of current and former county officials and employees testified at the hearing, heaping praise on Leithead Todd for her experience, hard work and dedication. Members of the public testifying in person and in written correspondence were split about 50-50 on whether the appointment met charter requirements. Many opposed to her appointment said it was the charter requirement, not Leithead Todd ‘s qualifications, that sparked their opposition.
Leithead Todd has a bachelor’s degree in English and a law degree from the William S. Richardson School of Law.
She was director of the Department of Environmental Management for two years under former Mayor Harry Kim, before the charter was amended to require the engineering or related degree.
Leithead Todd was deputy corporation counsel for nine years, from 1987 to 1993 and from 2003 to 2007. She also served as the legislative auditor for the county and as a member of the County Council from 1996 to 2003. Most recently, she served as planning director since Kenoi’s election as mayor.
Kenoi said Monday that the charter requirement for Environmental Management director is different from the requirement for Public Works director, which states that “the director shall be a registered professional engineer.”
But Charter Commission members, during discussions of the proposed engineering requirement for Environmental Management director, talked about related fields as being in hard technical sciences such as environmental science, according to the minutes for the Jan. 21, 2010, meeting. Eoff, who had served as secretary to the commission, said her recollection of the meetings led to her vote against confirming Leithead Todd.
Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida, in addressing the council, told members that it was their call to make, because the charter was ambiguous on the issue. Ashida had said in an 11-page opinion to the mayor and council that the Charter Commission was leaving it to the council and administration’s discretion.
Voters in 2010 passed the ballot amendment by a vote of 34,209 to 9,787.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.