Big Island Reporter Files Ethics Complaint Against Hawaii County Clerk

Sara Lin/Civil Beat

The Hawaii County Ethics Board on Wednesday is scheduled to hear a complaint against Jamae Kawauchi, the Big Island’s embattled clerk, alleging she violated county code in her handling of the island’s elections.

The complaint is another in a series of varied — and mostly unsuccessful — attempts to hold Kawauchi accountable for the ongoing elections saga that many say have jeopardized the democratic process on the Big Island.

But what sets this complaint apart is the person behind it: Big Island reporter Tiffany Edwards Hunt. Journalists don't usually file complaints about the people they cover.

Kawauchi has stirred quite a fuss among members of the media statewide, many of whom say she’s been less than forthcoming with them about why elections operations went so awry and what she was doing to remedy the problems. Patchy communication has become a major theme in recent conversations about the county clerk. Indeed, stories about the county clerk and the Big Island’s botched primary usually include a line saying she didn't respond.

In fact, Kawauchi did not return calls from Civil Beat seeking comment for this story.

Some reporters including Edwards Hunt also say that Kawauchi has been playing favorites with media outlets, consistently feeding information to some while ignoring the rest.

“The series of miscommunication, non-communication, of the omission of facts, (left) me feeling stonewalled — I’m just really suspicious of this whole thing,” Edwards Hunt told Civil Beat in September.

The state Elections Office says mismanagement of the Aug. 11 primary election resulted in the delayed opening of 13 Big Island polling places. Gov. Neil Abercrombie issued an emergency proclamation allowing all Hawaii County precincts to stay open an extra 90 minutes.

That was the pinnacle of a series of elections-related hiccups — some of which are still being addressed — that many attribute to Kawauchi.

Big Island Media Criticize Kawauchi For Ongoing Treatment

Not surprisingly, complaints from reporters have been amplified on the Big Island. The Big Island Press Club’s Yisa Var on Aug. 16 sent Kawauchi a letter that criticized her treatment of the media. Hawaii Public Radio’s Sherry Bracken has also spoken out about the issue. And BigIslandNow.com has published numerous opinion pieces denouncing Kawauchi, including one published Friday.

"The Hawaii County Council needs to recognize the obvious, that a fresh serving of humble pie for our county clerk just won’t cut it," wrote Big Island Now's Nate Gaddis. "It’s time for Jamae to go."

But Edwards Hunt is the first to file a formal objection with the Ethics Board.

Edward Hunt’s complaint alleges that Kawauchi violated Hawaii County’s Ethics Code, which states that “All persons shall be treated in a courteous, fair and impartial manner.”

Kawauchi “has been very selective in ... dissemination of public information and showed preferential treatment to certain reporters and stonewalling others,” the petition says.

Though filed last month, the board held off hearing the complaint until Wednesday in order to give Kawauchi the required 20 days notice.

She has yet to respond, according to board Chairman John Dill. Dill has recused himself from hearing Edward Hunt’s complaint, citing a letter he wrote in July asking that Kawauchi be removed from her post.

At the board's Sept. 12 hearing, Kawauchi criticized Dill’s letter. “She started railing into me and saying things that were untrue,” he said Friday.

“(The letter) has to do with the fundamental rights we have as a democracy,” Dill told Civil Beat in August. “Either through the lack of knowledge of the system or arrogance and ego, it (democracy) has become an afterthought.”

Edwards Hunt: Kawauchi Is 'Blackballing Me'

Edward Hunt said she filed the complaint out of principle.

“To date, she’s blackballing me,” Edwards Hunt said Friday. “And now I feel like it’s more threatening than ever. I’m trying to maintain my own business. It’s not just Jamae — it’s her entire office that’s taken this position to avoid me like the plague.”

Edwards Hunt, a former president of the Big Island Press Club, runs the independent news blog Big Island Chronicle.

Kawauchi, she said, has consistently refused to speak with her and a slew of other reporters — particularly those representing “new media.”

Hawaii Tribune Herald and West Hawaii Today — the island’s main daily newspapers — have, on the other hand, had exceptional access to Kawauchi, said Edwards Hunt. Both are owned by media conglomerate Stephens Media.

Edwards Hunt and HPR’s Bracken have both taken note of what they see as Kawauchi’s special treatment of the publications.

“She’s only speaking to people she can influence,” said Edwards Hunt.

Edwards Hunt has long been vocal in her criticism of Kawauchi, evident in the number of posts she has dedicated to the county clerk on her blog.

Her skepticism traces back to months before the primary, after Kawauchi fired the county’s experienced elections administrator Pat Nakamoto and three other staff, who Kawauchi accused of drinking and conducting an independent business in the elections warehouse. Nakamoto, Kawauchi said, condoned the activity.

At an Aug. 6 press conference, Kawauchi announced that she wasn’t going to offer printouts of primary results to any of the Big Island reporters at the county building — a service that Nakamoto had always provided, according to Edwards Hunt.

“The county building has always been a gathering place on election night. Not only are you getting the returns on a scheduled basis — you’re running into candidates who are coming down and waiting for printouts, too,” Edwards Hunt said. “When she told us that, we were very suspicious. She has been very spotty with information, contradictory with information.”

And Edwards Hunt was quick to disseminate an email to a number of reporters following her experience with Kawauchi the day of the primary.

“Let the record reflect that Big Island Chronicle and Big Island Video News are not on the media distribution list for the press releases,” she wrote in an email to various reporters on Aug. 11. “Big Island Chronicle and Big Island Video News representatives sat outside the County Building from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. waiting for Jamae to address us, after she scheduled an appointment with us to view delivery and collection procedures ... Big Island Chronicle has filled out Jamae's media form and yet Jamae has opted not to update Big Island Chronicle today. This is curious and alarming, the selective distribution of communication.”

And Big Island reporters sought out Kawauchi following the primary, but the clerk made just one public appearance: at an Aug. 14 Kona Tea Party meeting.

The Big Island Press Club’s Var sent Kawauchi a brief letter lambasting her inconsistent dealings with the media.

“Your dealings with the media have been uneven at times, unreliable at times, and untimely at times,” the letter says. “If you wish, we could cite examples, but the problems have been so pervasive and so repetitive that we suspect you would be hearing things you have heard already. Hiring or designating a media spokesperson for the office of the County Clerk is not the answer. What is needed, and what we are asking for, is consistent thoughtfulness and even-handedness.”

HPR’s Bracken said the letter voiced many reporters’ concerns.

“Kawauchi has not responded in a timely fashion to the most basic public information requests, such as how many registered voters were in each County Council district,” she said. “It’s ridiculous to have to ask for such information under the Freedom of Information Act, but it seems that’s what we have to do sometimes to make sure the public is kept informed about basic voting issues.”

Bracken also noted that Kawauchi failed to publicize changes she made less than a week before the primary to Hawaii County voter procedures.

“We need consistent, regular and fair communication, preferably by general press releases to all media, to make sure the public is able to exercise their right and privilege of voting,” Bracken said.

Still, Edward Hunts' petition hasn’t gone over well with all Big Island reporters — particularly those who’ve had more access to Kawauchi.

Stephens Media veteran reporter Nancy Cook Lauer felt targeted by the complaint, saying it set her out to be Kawauchi’s “teacher’s pet.”

“The times that I have talked with her it’s because I practically live at the County Building,” Cook Lauer said Friday. “If I call her, she’s not returning my calls either. It’s just that I’m in her face.”

Numerous Attempts To Smooth Out Wrinkles

Kawauchi was conspicuously absent from two recent Elections Commission meetings where the focus was largely the Big Island’s elections mishaps. She also skipped out on the first of a series of ad-hoc workshops that Nago had organized to address and straighten out elections management problems.

State elections officials said they were disappointed with what they saw as a halfhearted response to their efforts and on Tuesday announced that they would be assuming oversight of state-related elections operations on the Big Island.

The unprecedented move was a last-resort remedy to “longstanding issues about the management structure in [Kawauchi’s] office,” elections spokesman Rex Quidilla told Civil Beat Tuesday, highlighting that the clerk’s treatment of the media was one of the reasons behind the decision.

Edwards Hunt hopes the complaint will encourage more transparency.

“It’s like Alice in Wonderland,” she told Civil Beat. “They (Hawaii County officials) don’t even understand that this is their legacy.”


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