Tuesday, January 13, 2009

GIFT HORSE

GIFT HORSE: A rather routine communication on tomorrow’s county council agenda will probably be approved without any discussion or debate but that doesn’t mean that similar requests in the past haven’t been challenged by councilmembers.

Communication C 2009-41 is a standard request from Fire Chief Bob Westerman

requesting Council approval to accept a $500 monetary donation from Mrs. Clorinda Nakashima for the efforts of the Fire Department in trying to find her husband which funds will be deposited into a grant account for future use in recognizing firefighters.

But a similar “gift” came before the council back on 2002 in the lead-up to the mayoral election and then Council Chair Ron Kouchi seized on it to ask about the legitimacy of allowing the Fire Department to deposit gifts that are given “in appreciation” of their work into special Fire Department accounts rather than in the general fund.

Kouchi’s thinking was that the county funds the fire department’s activities and that money is what allows the department to do their job. So if someone is appreciative of their efforts and wants to give the county what in essence is a “tip for their services that money should go into the general fund where the council- not the department- can appropriate it with a view toward the yearly budget as a whole.”

In the 2002 case a Hollywood production company wanted to donate quite a handsome sum in appreciation for the assistance of the Fire Department which stood by and assisted with elements of their production and wanted to deposit the check in a special Fire Department account.

Kouchi- who was running for Mayor against two fellow councilmembers at the time raised eyebrows among political observers because when it comes to elections support from the KFD has always been uniquely essential in any winning effort.

But the thinking was that one of his opponents, eventual winner Bryan Baptiste, had all but locked up the coveted endorsement and this was Kouchi’s way of “sticking it to” the department by taking away a traditional source of a KFD “slush fund”..

But although the impetus might have been purely political on Kouchi’s part the idea at the heart of it made sense to many at the time, as it does now.

Although there are no allegations of irregularities in this case it’s not much of a leap to see the possibility that the department could bestow it’s “favors” on a certain people and businesses based on their likelihood to “donate” to a fund for “for future use in recognizing firefighters” while withholding them from others who might not.

Even though in this case the $500 came to “express our heartfelt thanks...for their tireless efforts in trying to find my husband’s body (who) lost his life when he want fishing on September 15 and never came home” according to Nakashima’s letter of gratitude the way our county government is set up it is the council who makes the tough decisions on how and where to spend taxpayer money.

When those decisions result in a department doing their job and a gift comes out of it, the money should rightly go to the general fund to be re-appropriated as the dictates of the county’s fiscal situation allow.

The process is what’s important here. Last month the Kaua`i Police Department accepted $14,790.57 worth of brand new equipment including a $1500, 42” Sony flat screen TV, furniture, keyless entry and gun locks, and a storage shed for its Hanalei Substation from David and Gina Moore of Princeville.

Although Communication C2009-22 didn’t say why the generous gift was bestowed when the county allows gifts to go directly to a department without the regular budgetary process the gift horse can easily be a Trojan horse if it’s used to benefit the giver or if the department gives out special favors in appreciation of the gift.

It’s not a matter of whether that scenario plays out but department personnel shouldn’t be put in a position where there is even the temptation to show favoritism or effectuate a quid pro quo..

And one more note on tomorrow’s meeting.

We’ve given extensive "ink" (as it were) to Bill 2294, regarding adding signage and notification provisions to the “grandfathering” of transient vacation rentals ordinance passed this year and an amendment to it passed in committee last week regarding the public availability of the names of those applying for the grandfathering.

So twice- on Friday and again yesterday we trudged down to the Council Services office to pick up a copy of the “Draft 1” version of the bill, as amend versions of the bill are called.

And both times we were told it “isn’t ready yet” with no explanation of how or why a bill amended in committee- a process that requires the amendment to be in writing and passed by a majority of members of the committee- can be unavailable.

It’s especially irksome given the six day notification provisions of the state Sunshine law.

By all rights, as we said yesterday, the amendment shouldn’t have been put into this bill because, in violation of the charter, it isn’t encompassed in the “purpose” section of the bill.

But if the public can’t see the bill that’s up for final passage tomorrow in advance of the meeting how can the public possibly be able to speak intelligently on the matter?

We don’t expect the council to do the right- and legal- thing tomorrow anyway but they could at least not make it so easy for us to again compel our perennial query of “can’t anyone here play this game?”

1 comment:

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