By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
The confirmation Wednesday of Bobby Jean Leithead Todd as Environmental Management director hinged on the definition of “related field.”
The County Council first studied the minutes of the 2009-2010 Charter Commission to determine the intent of its ballot initiative that the Environmental Management director have an engineering degree or a degree in a related field. Most decided a law degree was related.
“If Bobby Jean had majored in art history, I would say that’s not a related field,” said Mayor Billy Kenoi, in a relatively rare appearance testifying before the council. “The law is not crystal clear … but it provides discretion.”
The council ultimately voted 6-3 with South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford, North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff and Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille voting no.
“We don’t get to squirm around these things,” Ford said. “This is to me a blatant slap in the face to the voters of this county.”
Ford, who hired an attorney for a legal opinion, predicted a judge might ultimately decide the question. Corporation Counsel Lincoln 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.
“It’s your call,” Ashida told the council.
Eoff, who was secretary for the Charter Commission, said she struggled with the issue but had to vote no based on her understanding of the commission’s discussion and intent in crafting the amendment. Voters had passed the ballot amendment by a vote of 34,209 to 9,787.
“I don’t feel that a law degree is a related degree,” Eoff said. “I’m sorry.”
After Leithead Todd’s confirmation, Eoff left the dais and hugged the new director.
Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter drew upon her own experience as a human resources manager in making her decision. She described a step-by-step qualification process, concluding that the requirement is for an engineering degree or a degree in related field.
“It doesn’t say a degree in an engineering-related field,” Poindexter said.
Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, an attorney, said it was obvious from the discussion that people have their own perspective on the issue.
“This issue more than any other issue brings to light that we can read things and everyone sees it differently,” Yoshimoto said. “The question becomes whether we have quality people who are willing to serve.”
A graduate of the William S. Richardson School of Law, 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.
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. Most recently, she served as planning director since Kenoi’s election as mayor.
A convoy of current and former county officials and employees came forward to testify, heaping praise on Leithead Todd for her experience, hard work and dedication. Council members voting yes agreed that the former council member and planning director, with her years of experience, was the best candidate for a department that’s suffered from management turnover and big decisions ahead.
“We have someone that’s more than qualified,” said Puna Councilman Zendo Kern. “Allow her to go and do the job. There’s so much to be done.”
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.
“This is nuts. If you accept this, what’s to stop any provision in the charter with a wave of the hand?” asked Shannon Rudolph.
Tim Rees suggested the council seek a judicial review of the question.
Said Michael Hollinger, “I have deep respect for her qualifications. .. My issues are not about her qualifications but about the county charter.”
“It’s basically a smack to the voters’ face,” Hollinger added. “Forget about what the voters said; we’re going to do what we want.”
Hilo attorney Aaron Chung, a former County Council member, said the charter language is vague and open to council interpretation.
“It’s really a poorly drafted charter provision because it’s ambiguous. … Don’t use this charter provision to preclude an otherwise qualified appointee.”
The confirmation of Duane Kanuha as planning director went much more smoothly. The council voted 7-1, with Ford voting no, to confirm him. Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha abstained from voting, saying he doesn’t know if he’s related to the new planning director, but he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict since they share a last name.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.