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Council, attorney spar over roles

The on-again, off-again relationship between the Kaua‘i County Attorney’s Office and the Kaua‘i County Council came to a boil this spring but has since cooled off to a simmering status quo, officials said yesterday.

Both sides aired their frustrations when County Attorney Matthew Pyun Jr. appeared before the seven-member legislative body for his departmental budget review hearing on April 1 at the Historic County Building.

The issues included having a county attorney present for the duration of council meetings, hiring outside legal counsel for major litigation, training, discipline and change.

There has been little mending since the heated exchanges at the hearing, council members said, but personal differences have been put aside to keep government operations running smoothly in light of Mayor Bryan Baptiste’s unexpected death on June 22.

The decision voters make at the Nov. 4 election on whom they want to fill the remaining two years of the mayor’s second term in office could impact the County Attorney’s Office.

“That’s one of the many implications of what’s going on here,” County Councilman Tim Bynum said yesterday.

The county attorney’s term parallels the term of the appointing person. It will be up to the newly elected mayor to decide if Pyun should stay, Councilman Ron Kouchi said.

“Everyone’s concerned,” he said.

The priority now is to ensure the community has confidence in government to work through this difficult time, Kouchi said.

This has involved putting personal issues aside, he said, noting how the County Attorney’s Office has been working closely with Council Chair Bill “Kaipo” Asing on understanding the legal process of handling the mayoral succession.

The council will choose by majority vote one of its members to serve as mayor until Dec. 1 at a special council meeting at 9 a.m., Monday, at the Historic County Building. Baptiste’s memorial service is at 9 a.m., Sunday, at the War Memorial Convention Hall.

Some of the challenges identified at the budget review hearing have not since come to a head because the council has been finishing its meetings in a more timely manner, Kouchi said.

Pyun, a retired Big Island circuit judge who has served as county attorney since the council confirmed him in March 2007, told the council he does not want his deputy county attorneys sitting idly at council meetings that routinely run late.

According to the minutes to the budget hearing, Pyun said when he was hired he agreed to staff the council meetings full-time, but was unaware then that the council meetings sometimes went until 3 a.m. and “very often the county attorney would be required to sit around and do nothing.”

“I don’t have a budget that provides for paying for overtime,” he told the council.

Kouchi said Pyun has not changed his position that the deputy attorney can leave council meetings at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.

Council members told Pyun at the hearing that they feel, as a client, that the representation from the County Attorney’s Office has been insufficient and unfair.

“The council wants to try to see how we can address the problem and we should because I don’t think we should continue to operate the way we do unless the council feels that it’s OK,” Asing said at the hearing. “That has not been my perception.”

Pyun said a reasonable time for the meetings to conclude could be as late as 7:30 p.m.

“The attorneys … have families, they have obligations,” he said.

Kouchi said a balance must be found between respecting county employees’ time and the community members who come to testify.

“When we go to work, we don’t have an idea of what advice it is that we may need at what particular time and to reach a stage of conducting our work and not having that person as designated by the charter available does present a problem,” Kouchi said at the hearing. “Part of our dilemma is just the very active citizenry and it’s been that way for quite some time now. We have to try to find a way to accommodate the public who, you know, we all took the oath of office to serve.”

Putting the issue of not having an attorney present for the entire duration of the meetings aside, Bynum questioned if council members should be running their meetings so late for the simple reason of fatigue.

“I’m not sure we’re at our best after 12 or 14 hours,” he said.

Council members Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho and Mel Rapozo questioned Pyun on the attorney’s office providing fair treatment to all the entities it serves.

Specifically, they noted how an attorney is present for the entire duration of county Planning Commission meetings.

The office’s eight attorneys currently serve some 18 departments and 16 boards and commissions. James Tagupa has agreed on his own to stay throughout the commission’s meetings, Pyun said.

The debate at the hearing then spiraled into a discussion over wages before climaxing with an exchange between Rapozo and Pyun.

“If I had known that there were members of this … council who were so petty, who were so childish, who want to have attorneys dangled at their beck and call, you can bet I would not have accepted this position because I would have worked somewhere else,” Pyun said, according to the meeting minutes. “And now I’m finding this out.”

“If I knew that your position would have changed, you would not have gotten my vote either,” Rapozo said.

“That’s fine. Then we mutually agree,” Pyun said. “If I had known you would be so petty about everything and demand that people be here otherwise you’re going to suspend the proceedings, I wouldn’t be here either.”

Rapozo and the County Attorney’s Office did not return messages seeking comment.

Bynum said he would see it as a “great loss” if the county had to change its attorneys in the next two or three years. He noted the difficulty the county has in recruiting and retaining professional level positions.

Boundaries need to be set, he said, but the reins could be loosened.

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com

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