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Special counsel request rejected


Stephens Media

A West Hawaii councilwoman’s attempt to stop an executive session failed Wednesday.

South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford was the only one of seven council members attending the meeting who voted against discussing a request by Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida behind closed doors. North Kona Councilman Angel Pilago and Kohala Councilman Pete Hoffmann were absent Wednesday.

Council members rejected the special counsel request.

“There was no way I was going to vote for special counsel and wasting $100,000 of taxpayer money when we did nothing wrong,” Council Chairman Dominic Yagong said after the meeting.

Ford said no precedent existed for the council to hire special counsel for the county prior to litigation being initiated.

“Mr. Ashida continues to belabor an issue that is nonexistent,” Ford said. “The county does not have any liability.”

Ashida’s request was to discuss hiring special counsel for the county regarding claims filed against the county by attorney Ted Hong, on behalf of four former Elections Office employees. Ashida said he and his entire staff had a conflict of interest in the case and could not represent the county. The exact nature of the conflict was unclear Wednesday.

Further, Ford said, discussing the request in executive session would be a violation of Hawaii’s Sunshine Law.

Ashida disagreed. He said he took the proposed header, the description of the executive session request, to the state’s Office of Information Practices, which approved of the language. While no court cases have been filed, Ashida said just bringing claims to the county can be considered litigation.

“I don’t think (litigation) is only after a (court) complaint is filed,” Ashida said.

Ford disagreed, noting anyone can file a claim with the county. The Hawaii County Charter does not provide a definition for when exactly the county may hire special counsel. A county attorney in 1968 told the county’s charter commission special counsel was used for court cases. A special counsel attorney in 1978 said special counsel can be retained for litigation.

“It doesn’t become a liability to this county until a case is filed in court,” Ford said.

Ford, Yagong and Ka‘u Councilwoman Brittany Smart voted against Ashida’s request to hire special counsel. Puna Councilman Fred Blas and Hilo council members J Yoshimoto, Dennis Onishi and Donald Ikeda voted in favor of the recommendation. Any request to hire special counsel requires six affirmative votes to pass.

A bill that would make drinking alcohol in public places where alcohol is not permitted a petty misdemeanor passed its first reading. That allows judges to impose probation conditions, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth told council members. Those conditions may include banning the defendant from the location where the illegal drinking happened for the same time period the person is on probation, as well as ordering substance abuse counseling.

The council also approved a resolution asking Mayor Billy Kenoi to issue a request for proposals from nonprofit organizations to grow food on county land at Paauilo, then donate that food to The Food Basket. The measure also calls for the county to begin the process to permit donating wild game for distribution.

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