West Hawaii regains some control with council reorganization

Yagong elected chair, Hoffmann as vice chair
by John Burnett
Stephens Media

Monday, November 8, 2010 8:36 AM

The County Council has reorganized for the upcoming two-year term starting Dec. 6, and the balance of power has shifted away from Hilo.

In an organizational meeting held Sunday at Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong’s Honokaa home, Yagong was elected chairman and Kohala Councilman Pete Hoffmann vice chairman, Yagong confirmed. In addition to Yagong and Hoffmann, the meeting included South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford and councilors-elect Angel Pilago, of North Kona, Fred Blas, of Pahoa, and Brittany Smart, of Ka’u.

Not invited to the meeting were current Chairman J Yoshimoto and Councilmen Dennis “Fresh” Onishi and Donald Ikeda, all of Hilo. The current vice chairwoman, Emily Naeole, of Puna, was thwarted in her bid for a fourth term by Blas.

Hawaii’s Sunshine Law allows secret meetings to select officers, but participation is limited to less than a quorum — in this case, four members or fewer. The law doesn’t apply to incoming councilors whose terms haven’t started.

Yagong said tentative committee chair and vice chair assignments, respectively, are: Ford and Yagong, Finance; Hoffmann and Pilago, Planning; Blas and Ford, Parks and Recreation and Public Works; Smart and Pilago, Environmental Management; Pilago and Yoshimoto, Human Services, Social Services and Public Safety; Yoshimoto and Hoffmann, Energy and Water Sustainability; Ikeda and Onishi, Agriculture and Economic Development; Hoffmann and Blas, Housing Agency; Pilago and Smart, Intergovernmental Relations; and Onishi and Ikeda, Mass Transit.

Yagong said the appointments of those present at the meeting are solid. He said the Hilo councilmen’s assignments are tentative because he hadn’t yet contacted them.

“I certainly want to talk to them and make sure that they are in agreement on chairing those committees before we finalize those committees,” Yagong said.

Yoshimoto didn’t return a phone call by press time, but Onishi said, “I’ll accept whatever they give.”

“I look forward to working with everyone and making it positive,” he said. “We can’t be fighting with each other because we need to solve the economic problems that we’re facing.”

Yagong said his priority is the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

“The projected shortfall for the upcoming budget is gonna be a huge one, and I think part of our legislation needs to be focused on a move towards proper budgeting and towards being very fiscally responsible about how we spend our money,” he said.

The council gave initial approval Thursday, by a 5-3 vote, to Mayor Billy Kenoi’s proposal to borrow $56 million for construction projects through a bond sale. The three opposed were Yagong, Yoshimoto and Ford, with outgoing North Kona Councilman Kelly Greenwell absent. The county’s Finance Department submitted a list of projects with a projected $55.5 million price tag, but the measure does not specify that bond proceeds must go to those projects. County administrators said they wanted to assure flexibility. Yagong called the proposal “basically a $56 million blank check.”

“My biggest question is how we’re going to pay for that,” he said. “We have one more reading on (the bill) and we’re gonna continue to have discussion. … If we are going to go for a bond request, we really should plan this out, because this is the last bit of money that I think the council can afford to borrow over the next several years. So if we are going to have some type of bond float, I think we have to have a better presentation of the projects that we are going to pursue, and why.”

A perception of dysfunction has plagued the current council, with personalities overshadowing and, at times, distracting from issues at hand. Naeole often invoked Akua (God) at meetings, while Greenwell was sentenced to jail for an altercation with a Kona police officer during a traffic stop. Outgoing Ka’u Councilman Guy Enriques refused for months to talk to the local media for what he called “irresponsible and biased reporting.” His self-imposed boycott ended after his primary election loss to Smart set up the General Election showdown, which Smart won handily.

“These past two years have been very difficult, not just for the council, but for the community-at-large,” Yagong said. “I think the community really wants the council to get back on track, to be efficient and professional in what we do. That’s gonna be my first order of business, getting us back on track in bringing forth useful legislation that’s going to help the community-at-large.”

E-mail John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.