Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sideshows at the County Council

'Sorry for my long absence. After a couple of weeks' delay due to airline scheduling, I finally got back to Missouri to see my son and meet with people about bringing him over here when the time comes (See June 2 entry) Then, on the plane home, I was apparently riding in the same cabin with someone who was carrying some nasty microbes. I was mostly in bed for a couple of weeks (but if a job with a health plan had come along, I'd have climbed out of bed and gone). About the only writing I did was an essay about the personal cost of the industrialization of the food chain for my family and home town, which just appeared at the Hawaii Independent Web site.

Yesterday I was back in the saddle, though. I spent most of the day down at the County Council, because I've got an assignment from the Big Island Weekly to write a story about Billy Kenoi's plan to sell the county's Hamakua lands. That plan hit an unexpected snag yesterday. The council has already approved the land sale once, but had to re-vote on the issue because of the mess from its violation of the Sunshine Law in displacing liberal council members from their posts. Then some Native Hawaiian advocates claimed that the county didn't have clear title, and when corporate council Lincoln Ashida was called to the stand to assure the council that the county had clear title, the best Ashida could offer was an answer in two weeks--a performance that rather flabbergasted Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong.

"I think it's incredible, since the county has supposedly owned the land since 1994, that the corp counsel cannot stand before us today and say that for sure we own this land," he said after the meeting.

I'm checking out the native Hawaiian claims and other issues regarding the land sale, and will have my report in the Weekly shortly. Meanwhile, some random observations about the Council itself:

I hadn't had the occasion to attend a council meeting for a while. But I've been covering the council for over 15 years now. And I have to say that this current group of councilors is the least professional I have ever seen.

Yagong, restored temporarily to his post as chair of the Finance committee, did a good job of conducting that meeting relatively smoothly--despite some of the antics of his fellow councilors, who were sometimes chatting on their cell phones or with each other during testimony and discussion. Some of the discussion was good, but Emily Naeole seemed to be basing her positions mostly on anecdotes about Puna life (some on point and some not so much) and an idolization of Billy Kenoi. When she introduced a resolution opposing the delisting of the 'io (Hawaiian hawk) from the Endangered Species List, she said her reason was because "Mayor Kenoi asked me to." It's good that someone is still judging things on whether they're "pono" or not, now that Curtis Tyler is gone. But it's a bit frightening to see what a small part logical problem-solving plays in Naeole's decision-making process.

Despite Yagong's efforts to move the agenda along, the Finance Committee ran badly overtime and the Hamakua lands bill was tabled until the end of the day. So I went out to get lunch and do my laundry. When I got back at 4:15 or so, Naeole's Committee on Human Services and Economic Development, scheduled for 3 p.m., was just convening. That committee had almost no business, so I didn't get to see whether the fears voiced by Hoffman and others about her incompetence with the gavel were well-founded.

Up next was the Public Works Committee, chaired by Ford. She did a fairly competent job, although she was not as smooth a reader as Yagong. Occasionally she would stumble on a word as she read the agenda items into the record. Each time that happened, Guy Enriques would snicker.

Enriques seemed to be having the most fun of any of the councilors. With the possible exception of Dennis "Fresh" Onishi, Enriques probably spoke less on the record that day than any of the others, but he made several under-his-breath comments to J Yoshimoto that Enriques, at least, found humorous--especially when Ford was speaking. His biggest laugh of the day, however, came when an administration official was asked about a routine traffic bill and replied,"No comment." Enriques chuckled and snorted and sniggered over that for at least five minutes, finally prompting a "No snickering" admonishment from Ford.

Apparently somebody had brought some fruit to the Council table. Enriques was popping grapes in his mouth while the public testified that morning. During the Planning session, Naeole was sucking on juicy pieces of grapefruit. She offered some to Greenwell, who was sitting next to her.

Then an agenda item came up that Ford wished to comment upon, so she relinquished the chair to her vice chair, as was proper. But nobody knew who the vice chair was. They had to temporarily adjourn the meeting while they figured it out.

It turned out that the vice chair was Greenwell, much to his surprise. He assumed the gavel, and the public was graced with the vision of a committee chair actually licking juice off his fingers while conducting a public session.

That was the least of his problems. He got confused about which agenda items and amendments were being voted on. He called on members out of order and missed the green lights that appeared on his panel when other members wanted to speak. The other councilors and the county clerk repeatedly had to remind him about the council's rules for conducting a meeting.

When he finally relinquished the gavel, Enriques told him, "You're getting better."

But perhaps the low point of the day happened back during the Finance Committee hearing that morning, when the council re-voted on Yagong's proposal to give back their hefty salary increase, and the various councilors started giving their excuses for keeping those raises, which Ford described as "obscene." Naeole told a story about giving a meal to a homeless person, and claimed she needed the money to help others.

Greenwell, of Kona's wealthy Greenwell ranch family, claimed, with a straight face, "I don't want to begin the downward spiral of this and have people say, 'The county council cut back, you can cut back, too.'"

Council Chair J Yoshimoto, with an equally straight face, claimed, "My main concern is that the county council not influence the salary commission."

Various councilors echoed Naeole's contention that it should be up to the individual councilors to voluntarily give up portions of their raises if they so chose. Somebody said that since the councilors no longer had discretionary money, they needed their raises to give to local charities and causes within their district.

It didn't seem to occur to them that their option to give to the charities of their choice might come at the expense of someone else's job, or be paid for with the sale of land that the people of Hamakua had long said they wanted for family farming. During a session when councilors were arguing over the lease of a copier and debating whether it was more fiscally prudent to hire a parks project manager for Kona or to transfer one there from Hilo, the councilors' arguments for their own pay raises seemed laden with unconscious irony.

Only Yagong and Ford supported the rollback. Kohala councilor Pete Hoffman was absent.