Letters for Sunday, October 9, 2011

• The salary saga

The salary saga

For almost a year I have journeyed in the wilderness known as the executive salary process as it has unfolded since the 2006 charter amendments which established major changes in the process.

Local inauguration day marked the beginning of my journey. On that day the county clerk was accused of knowingly accepting an illegal pay raise in 2009.  Based on my previous experience as a member of the Salary Commission in 2004 and my work on the 2006 charter amendments, I knew instinctively that the charge was groundless, but I lacked the knowledge to fully support my instinct.

I set out to piece together an understanding of what has happened in the process since February 2007 by reviewing Salary Commission minutes and resolutions and minutes of the County Council.

I soon discovered that the November 2010 salary resolution contained an illegal provision (Section 2) and I brought the fact to the attention of the council in early December 2010. In September 2011 Deputy County Attorney Mona Clark repeatedly confirmed in testimony to the council that the provision is illegal.

As I continued my research it gradually became clear that the process was corrupt. Calling something corrupt does not primarily mean that it flows from evil intentions.  

The root meaning of “corrupt” is that something has broken apart and therefore lacks the integrity of the original. In this case the original is the salary process envisioned by the county charter and the corruption consists of violations of both the letter and spirit of the charter.

I discovered that the corruption had three sources. First, no county agency had asked and answered the question, “What is the overall process envisioned by the 2006 charter amendments?”

Second, communication among the principals involved in the process, including the commission, council, mayor and county attorney, had been minimal and fragmented.

For example, salary resolutions included various questionable and sometimes bizarre provisions that begged for advice from county attorneys and responses from the council in its monitoring role. Both remained silent.

Third, many confusions and convolutions in the process grew out of the ill-fated decision in 2007 to establish four salary increases spread over two and a half years. No one asked if committing the county to multi-year expenditures is legal. Councilwoman Iseri-Carvalho did express concern in May 2007 that there was no way to know if the county would be able to afford the increases, but the council ignored her concerns.

The confusions and convolutions intensified when the mayor requested in the spring of 2009 that the final salary increases for administrative positions, which were due to take effect in December 2009, be deferred until December 2011. The commission spurned the request but later relented to the extent of deferring them until December 2010 after the mayor persuaded several boards and commissions with appointing power to support his request.

The commission’s decision broke up the pattern of across-the-board increases it had established in 2007 because it allowed increases for positions in the prosecutor’s office and the legislative branch to stand.

In November 2010 the commission deferred administrative raises to July 1, 2011. One reason for inserting the illegal Section 2 in Resolution 2010-1 was that the commission entangled its decision-making with furloughs and civil service negotiations.

On Aug. 5 the commission responded to a July 15 letter from the mayor asking them to assemble for the first time since November and to find a way to defer his salary increase, which had become effective on July 1. The commission rubber stamped Resolution 2011-1, which had been prepared by John Isobe, the mayor’s executive assistant and boards and commissions administrator. The resolution deferred raises for all administrative positions based apparently on the belated recognition that Section 2 in the November resolution was illegal.

On Sept. 7 the council rejected Resolution 2011-1 by a 6-1 vote. The decision marked the first time the council had handled a salary resolution with integrity. The main reason given for the rejection was that the resolution violated the charter’s March 15 deadline for submitting resolutions.

On Sept. 21 the council approved a request to reconsider its decision to reject and on Sept. 27 the resolution was allowed to take effect by default after the vote to approve it was deadlocked at 3-3.

Asking the county attorney to opine following the vote to reject was like the chickens inviting the fox into the hen house at the behest of the mother hen. Similarly to what happened in the Board of Ethics a couple of years ago, the county attorney chose to attack the language of the charter in an effort to persuade the council that it must approve Resolution 2011-1.

Typical of the county attorney’s specious arguments is his claim that the council would be setting a precedent loaded with dire consequences if it took the charter’s March 15 deadline at face value. The claim is patently false.

The 2007 commission set the precedent with the approval of the council and the tacit approval of the county attorney. Although it had not yet come up with a salary schedule, commissioners felt compelled to meet the March 15 deadline by submitting a preliminary report on that date.

Council members who first voted to reject and changed their votes based on statements by the county attorney may have occasion for third thoughts. Councilman Rapozo felt his commitment to upholding the charter so strongly that he announced that he will be taking the matter to court at his own expense, so there will be another chapter in this story.

Horace Stoessel, Kapa‘a


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