Being well-liked doesn’t make for a great attorney

The May 28 County Council meeting was the site of a classic confrontation between a justified concern and the Kauai county political culture. The event was the resolution requested by council members Hooser and Rapozo seeking mayoral action for the termination of tenure of Mr. Al Castillo, as the county attorney.

Under the County Charter, the county attorney is the chief legal adviser for the county and its agencies and offices. On occasion, Mr. Castillo has rather peremptorily announced that the county offices and agencies are obliged to accept the advice of his office and will not receive county protection if they do not. His function includes the direction of a staff of eight deputy attorneys and the oversight of special counsel retained by him principally to protect the county and its employees from claims arising from their actions. The position requires both legal and management competence. The great bulk of his work is shielded from public view.

In recent years, the cost of special counsel retained to represent the county and its employees has soared. The recent case brought by council member Bynum, which will cost our taxpayers over a million dollars, has been an important element in this surge.

Discussion by the council members at the meeting on the proposed resolution was preceded by testimony of more than ten members of the county administration including the mayor opposing the resolution and some public testimony supporting it. It is difficult for a non-lawyer to offer meaningful commentary about the quality of a lawyer’s work. The mayor expressed his confidence in the county attorney and mentioned some work of the office, but most of the staff comments were essentially to the largely irrelevant effect that Al Castillo is a likable person.

The statement by council member Rapozo is support of the proposed resolution was not directed to the quality of legal work from the county attorney office although there have been unfavorable comments about it, but rather as to the failure of the county attorney to manage effectively his supervision of special counsel and the defects in his informing and obtaining council approval as required in numerous instances resulting in special counsel seeking approval for costs in excess of amounts authorized by the council. Council member Hooser affirmed the Rapozo comments and offered numerous instances where the county attorney’s office had failed or was irresponsibly late in responding to his inquiries.

The resolution was ill fated because it ran against the county political culture which holds that criticism of a member of the establishment is unacceptable. It was disappointing to hear the remarks of the other council members purporting to offer their reasons for opposing the resolution.

One member advised that he was impressed by the opinion given by the office regarding Bill 2491 (to regulate pesticides and genetically modified organisms) citing its accurate prediction that if the bill was adopted that the county would be sued by the pesticide companies. Really? It would be naïve to expect that litigation would not ensue such enactment.

Another member stated that the resolution was not “timely.” When inefficiency is believed to exist it is always appropriate to seek promptly to find a solution to try to correct it. It is hard to find a justifiable reason for the vacuous remark.

A member opined that he thought the resolution was offered for political reasons. There is nothing inherently improper to have a political objective on a public issue, but in this situation any favorable political fallout for the proposers of the resolution would be highly dubious, as it seemed obvious that the resolution was being offered purely as a solution to a troublesome condition.

Another member expressed the view that the resolution involved a disagreeable matter and that it was “time to move on” The member’s ostrich-like approach echoed similar comments he had made earlier incident to the proposed settlement of the Bynum case. If a condition needs fixing there is no justification for paving over it and moving on.

Lastly, the council chair provided some inconclusive remarks about leadership and the need for accommodation and then the members voted as expected 5 to 2 against the resolution.

So an against-odds event ended without any tangible solution resulting to improve or cure a systemic problem entrusted to a person with inadequate experience. Regrettably, the Kauai political culture seems designed to perpetuate rather than resolve problems because our county officials cannot seem to bring themselves to take remedial action when it involves a personable colleague.

The allegations made by the resolution’s sponsors were serious, and, if untrue, should have been refuted by those opposing the resolution. They were not. If the allegations were true, the opponents of the resolution chose to protect a co-worker instead of serving the public interest. This episode deserves to be remembered at election time.

• Walter Lewis is a retired attorney who lives in Lihue and writes a regular column for The Garden Island.

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