By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
A member of the Salary Commission has resigned in protest of Hawaii County’s requirement that members of boards and commissions file financial disclosures, sparking a debate about whether the disclosures serve the best interests of the county.
Gloria Wong, who previously served on the Cost of Government Commission, the Appeals Board and several boards on Oahu, said she’d never before been required to disclose information about her income and stock ownership or other financials. She tendered her resignation letter to the mayor after her protest to the county Board of Ethics resulted in a letter warning her of the penalty for filing an incomplete form.
Wong, in an interview Monday, said she’d offered to participate in a task force to review the disclosure requirements and the form, which she said was created in 1978. She said changing the requirement could lead to more members of the public volunteering to serve.
“You see a lot of vacancies on these boards,” Wong said. “Why do people not sit on these boards and commissions? Maybe that’s one of the questions that should be asked.”
Hawaii County currently has 35 active boards and commissions, creating a challenge for sufficient members. Several boards often cancel meetings for lack of a quorum, and Mayor Billy Kenoi finds himself recycling members from board to board to fill puka.
But Kenoi points out that his administration has seated more than 220 people during his term.
“We’re very proud of the quality of people on these boards,” Kenoi said.
He said the challenge in filling boards lies more in the amount of time and work the boards consume than in people not wanting to fill out the form.
“I think the financial disclosure is a fair request to ensure openness and transparency,” Kenoi said.
Unlike for elected officials and certain key government employees, financial disclosures for boards and commissions are kept confidential. In fact, said Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida, there aren’t even copies made or paper documents scanned for those forms. Instead, the Board of Ethics, in closed executive session, passes the forms around and reviews them for completeness. Then they are stored in a locked filing cabinet.
Ashida said the process serves the purpose of reminding members of boards and commissions about their responsibility to steer clear of conflicts of interest and a mechanism for oversight while protecting privacy.
“It helps raise issues and concerns they may have concerning potential conflicts of interest,” Ashida said. “The law strikes a good balance in protecting the public interest while protecting the significant privacy interest of the members.”
Ethics laws vary by county. The City and County of Honolulu, for example, doesn’t require members of boards and commissions to file financial disclosures. Maui County, however, requires members of boards and commissions having “significant discretionary or fiscal powers” to file. Like Hawaii County, Maui keeps those reports confidential.
Bernard Balsis, vice chairman of the Board of Ethics, could not be reached for comment Monday. But in a July 18 letter to Wong, he gave her a July 31 deadline to submit her completed disclosure form or be subject to a misdemeanor charge, which carries a penalty of up to one year in jail, and a $1,000 fine.
“The board does not have the authority to waive compliance with the Code of Ethics,” Balsis said in the letter. “Rather, the board is charged with ensuring that officers and employees of the county of Hawaii comply with the code.”
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