As election looms , a resignation and sickness hit Hawaii County clerk's office

Published: Aug. 9, 2012 at 9:58 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 10, 2012 at 10:30 PM HST
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Honolulu (HawaiiNewsNow) – Two of five full-time election staffers in the Hawaii County elections office went out on sick leave this week and a temporary employee resigned Wednesday, calling the office "dysfunctional," just a few days before Saturday's primary election.

Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi told Hawaii News Now late Thursday, "We're fine, we're doing OK," in spite of the latest problems in the office, while other elections officials across the state worried the latest setbacks could bring voting troubles on election day, Aug. 11.

"It is my personal opinion that the operation of a successful primary election in Hawaii County is doubtful, if more election personnel fail to report to work," said Jeffrey Kuwada, the Maui County Clerk who has held the position since Oct. 2009 but was deputy clerk for five years before that.

Kawauchi, who was appointed to the Big Island clerk's job in Dec. 2010, has not worked an election before.  She closed her office without warning for a day last month to audit voter registration rolls and did not respond to state elections officials' requests for a detailed update for one week.

One county elections staffer resigned yesterday, telling Big Island news web site Big Island the atmosphere in the elections office is dysfunctional and said she worried operations there will be a "disaster" this Saturday.

Two key staffers in the office, the acting elections administrator and the person in charge of voter registration, are out on sick leave until after the election, Kawauchi said, adding she received notification about that development Wednesday.

Kawauchi said back-up staff have been shadowing those staffers for several weeks and have assumed their responsibilities.

"I can assure the public things are going to go smoothly," Kawauchi said. "If there's a disaster, it's not a disaster that will be created by our office.  We are working very hard to make sure we will have a fair and well-run election."

Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, who's been critical of the election office operations for months, said, "She needs to rely on these staff people, because they have more experience than her."

Onishi, who is up for re-election but is unopposed on Saturday, worried last-minute staff replacements in the elections office won't be able to handle election day difficulties that arise Saturday.

"We have inexperienced people there who never ran elections.  And when these problems happen and these things come up, they're not going to be able to solve it," Onishi said. "I think it's poor supervision. I think it's inexperience. And I hate to say that, maybe things that are happening in there, people don't want to be liable for it."

At a news conference earlier this week, Kawauchi was asked about Onishi's worries.

"If Mr. Onishi has concerns, I'd be happy to address them.  I have not gotten a communication from him saying that he has concerns," Kawauchi said.

Privately, elections officials elsewhere in the state worried the Hilo office will not be able to handle hundreds of questions from polling place workers on election day, leading to delays and problems at voting sites.  Campaigns and election workers in other counties are worried about the possibly that problems on Hawaii island will delay the outcome of close races, like the Senate contest between Ed Case and Mazie Hirono and the Congressional race between Tulsi Gabbard and Mufi Hannemann.

Big Island State Senator Malama Solomon called the situation "alarming."

"My concern is that people could opt to challenge the results of the election and if so, that would be within their purview and their prerogative, because of how events are going," Solomon said.

Solomon is running for the Democratic nomination for the 4th Senatorial district seat, covering North Hilo and Waimea.  Her opponent is Lorraine Inouye.

Solomon worried that there will be a larger number of voter problems this year, because redistricting will cause about one third of the voters to vote at different polling places from the 2010 election.

"If candidates have specific concerns, I would be more than happy to hear from them," Kawauchi said.

Temporary staffer Kui Kama, who worked the 2008 and 2010 elections in the office, resigned yesterday and submitted a resignation letter that said, "I refuse to be a part of something that will fail, because I know it will," according to Big Island  Kama did not return Hawaii News Now's phone call requesting comment.

Kawauchi referred questions about Kama's resignation to her employer, Altres Staffing, a temporary staffing firm. "We don't comment on personnel matters," Kawauchi said.

Kawauchi said a state elections official was training two temporary elections employees Thursday night to supplement the eight other temps who've been working in the county elections office.

Kawauchi denied firing an employee Monday who worked in the Kona elections office, a development that's been reported by several Big Island news organizations.  She claimed she "reallocated the position" from Kona to Hilo, because things were busier in Hilo.

She also said a state elections official will be in Hilo Saturday at the county's counting center to assist in vote tabulation.

Rex Quidilla, a spokesman for the state's Office of Elections, said his office had a "lengthy conversation" with Kawauchi Thursday morning and asked specific questions about the situation on the Big Island.

"She provided us good responses to all our questions," Quidilla said.

"She told us the lack of staff will have no impact on the elections.  We can only rely on what she tells us," Quidilla said.

The Big Island county clerk is supervised by the Hawaii County Council Chair and can be hired and fired by a vote of the county council.  The state does not have the power to step in and take over county elections operations.

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