Your Government: County spending hundreds of thousands on outside counsel

The Kaua‘i County Council this week approved the use of up to $300,000 for lawsuits high-placed police officers and a Kaua‘i group advocating property tax reform have lodged against Kaua‘i County.

The council, meeting Wednesday at the historic County Building, did not take the action lightly.

Why? Because county has already come under a barrage of public claims against police officers and lawsuits officers have filed against one another or against the county that could result in costly settlements or litigation, council chairman Kaipo Asing and other council members have complained.

Although the county pays insurance premiums to cover litigation costs, residents are asking their political leaders what have been the circumstances that have come about that have triggered so much legal action against the county.

In its latest action, the council approved the following: • Up to $100,000 to hire special counsel to represent the county in a lawsuit filed against it by Kauai Police Department Assistant Chief Clayton Arinaga.

In his lawsuit filed in 5th Circuit Court, Arinaga alleged retaliation by Kaua‘i Police Chief K.C . Lum in violation of the state’s Whistleblowers’ Protection Act.

Arinaga contended Lum took action against him for reporting on three vice officers who were to have attended events at a training seminar on Maui last year, but did not.

Arinaga said he found out in September last year that the three officers failed to attend the training seminar that had been approved by KPD and funded by Kaua‘i County and the federal government.

Arinaga claimed as well that Lum told him that no investigation was needed, and that officials with the Kaua‘i County Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigations also deemed an investigation unnecessary.

Lum, meanwhile, characterized Arinaga’s lawsuit as being without merit, noting that an investigation had been initiated and is ongoing, and that he is obligated, as a law enforcement officer, to begin an investigation if he suspects a crime has occurred.

• Up to $100,000 has been requested for the county to hire special counsel to represent county defendants in Lum’s lawsuit against the county.

Lum filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Honolulu against Mayor Bryan Baptiste, Kaua‘i Police Commissioner Leon Gonsalves and the Kaua‘i County Council alleging discrimination and a conspiracy.

Lum contends the alleged illegal activities started even before he was sworn in as Kaua‘i’s newest police chief on Oct. 15, 2004. On the same day, Ron Venneman also was sworn in as the deputy police chief.

On Oct. 14, Leon Gonsalves sent out an e-mail to a personal friend that compared Lum and Venneman to two character in the 1960s television show “Bonanza.” Gonsalves called Lum “Hop Sing,” the name of the Chinese cook who appeared in that long-running television series, prompting Lum, who is of Chinese descent, to file a Hawaii Civil Rights complaint against Gonsalves in April 2005.

Gonsalves also called Venneman “Little Joe,” one of the brothers who operated a fictitious ranch in the television series.

In calling Lum “Hop Sing” in an e-mail that was circulated among county employee’s computers in October of that year, Gonsalves said he never intended to hurt anyone.

Gonsalves said he has been calling Lum “Hop Sing,” since he and Lum worked together as detectives in the 1980s.

Gonsalves, who is retired from the force and now sits on the Kaua‘i Police Commission, said he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone and wasn’t making any derogatory remarks against anyone.

Because of his thick, black and wavy hair, Gonsalves said he was regularly called “Angus” when he was with KPD.

Lum also claims Gonsalves had harassed him and tried to embarrass him at police commission meetings, and has sought to impose sanctions against him as police chief.

Last year, Lum overran his overtime budget by some $320,000, the first time a county official has gone over a department budget in that amount, county officials said.

Lum went over his allotted budget for overtime, but he has since been able to mitigate the problem by tapping other department funds, watching expenses and reshuffling manpower.

Gonsalves described the budget overrun of some $320,000 as unacceptable and grilled Lum on the expenditures of his department.

Lum has outlined his goals for the department to both the Kaua‘i County Council, which is to begin a probe of the Kauai Police Department, and the Kaua‘i Police Commission, which has initiated a process to determine whether to keep him or fire him as police chief.

Lum says he has gotten on the wrong side of the status quo of the KPD and wants to “end business as usual,” to streamline the KPD operations and heighten the safety of Kaua‘i residents.

• Up to another $100,000 has been approved to prevent Mayor Bryan Baptiste and the Kaua‘i County Council from implementing the directive of the Ohana Kauai amendment which was passed by voters in the 2004 election.

That proposal advocates reducing property taxes for residents living in their homes to the tax amount they paid in 1998.

The measure also would limit tax increases to 2 percent a year this year, a year after the proposal took effect.

The Ohana Kauai group posed the charter amendment because they felt that, with skyrocketing assessments and huge county budgets, property tax-reform was necessary.

The council agrees with that premise and has passed numerous bills that have provided millions of dollar in tax relief. The mayor signed those measures into law.

Budgets have been larger in recent years due to higher assessments that have generated more tax revenues that have gone into county coffers.

The budgets would have been larger had the council and the mayor not agreed to huge tax relief measures.

While the Ohana Kauai proponents have supported immediate implementation of the approved charter amendment, county leaders have raised constitutional issues over whether the measure can affect the taxing authority of county governments.

The matter is before the Hawai‘i Supreme Court for resolution.

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