- Special Projects
Every year, more than 200 people are awarded city jobs, some carrying six-figure salaries, without having to compete for the positions. That’s because they are hired under a category called “personal services contracts,” which are supposed to be reserved for temporary hires needed on an emergency basis or for positions that are hard to fill through normal recruitment.
The jobs aren’t supposed to last for more than a year, according to the city charter.
But a review of 10 years of government records by Civil Beat found that the vast majority of people hired through personal services contracts have had their positions renewed year after year.
Many of the jobs are rather ordinary — secretaries, accountants and meter readers.
Others, such as Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s recent hires to lead a new city housing department, carry substantial responsibility.
“The city’s position is that by issuing one-year contracts and renewing each year, that they are fulfilling the intent of the law. We disagree.” — Edwin Young, city auditor
The administration in December hired Sandra Pfund and Chris Sadayasu to lead the city’s new Strategic Development Office under personal services contracts. Pfund is paid about $125,000 annually; Sadayashu $110,000.
Former Managing Director Ember Shinn told Civil Beat in November that the Strategic Development Office jobs weren’t advertised because there was no requirement to do so. She acknowledged in correspondence to the City Council that the positions were expected to last longer than a year. The new office is being set up to manage the city’s affordable housing properties and long-term efforts to house the homeless.
The hiring practices raise questions about fairness and whether the city is recruiting the best available talent under a hiring system that cites its “primary purpose” as managing a personnel system based on “merit principles.”
Indeed, demand is high for city jobs, which tend to pay well and provide generous benefits — including two months off a year in combined vacation, sick days and holidays. In the 2014 fiscal year, 16,384 people applied for 265 regularly advertised jobs, according to the city’s latest annual report.
In the quarter ending last September, the city reported that it had approved personal services contracts for 207 people. However, 83 percent of the people “hired” were already working for the city in the same position and were merely having their contracts renewed, most of them for another year, according to a Civil Beat analysis of data filed quarterly with the Honolulu City Council.
Another 98 employees are working for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, a quasi-city agency, under personal services contracts. However, because the rail project is in part federally funded, HART is required to advertise all of the positions, according to Paul Romaine, HART’s administrative services officer. He said HART advertises its jobs on its website, the city’s job site, and through professional organizations, colleges and employment websites.
Other than HART, the departments hiring the most employees under personal services contracts are the Board of Water Supply, the Department of Facility Maintenance and Department of Community Services.
The city’s use of personal services contracts has sparked controversy through the years. A 2006 city audit found that city departments “virtually ignored” charter regulations, maintaining contracts that exceeded the one-year limitation, and that the contracts are often perceived as being used to reward political insiders. Almost none of the positions were advertised, the audit noted, filled instead through “personal reference.”
City contract hires over the years have included former City Council Chair John DeSoto, who was being paid $20.26 an hour as a part-time Community Relations Specialist I in the Department of Environmental Services in 2010. Robert Fishman, the city’s managing director under former Mayor Perter Carlisle, was paid $62.31 an hour in 2011 to work as a part-time Executive Assistant I.
Randy Leong, a former deputy director of the Department of Enterprise Services, is currently pulling in an annual salary of $104,400 as an Executive Assistant II for the Department of Customer Services. Leong began the post in February 2013 — his current contract ends in June 2015. Leong has received other city personal services contracts — in 2011, he was working as a Procurement and Specifications Specialist II for the Department of Environmental Services, earning $3,000 a month.
In 2012, Councilman Ikaika Anderson pushed for a ballot initiative to give the City Council more control over contracts, noting they could circumvent “normal civil service procedures that help to ensure that city employment is based on merit principles.”
Little appears to have changed since the 2006 audit.
“The city’s position is that by issuing one-year contracts and renewing each year, that they are fulfilling the intent of the law,” said Edwin Young, the current city auditor. “We disagree.”
The city charter states that personal services contracts are supposed to be reserved for jobs “of a temporary nature needed in the public interest where the need for the same does not exceed one year.” The director of the city’s Department of Human Resources is required to certify that “recruitment through normal civil service recruitment procedures is not practicable.”
The city has also rebuffed attempts to make its quarterly reports to the City Council more transparent. For instance, the auditor recommended that the reports include the total costs of the contracts, the number of contracts previously awarded to a contractor and the number of times a contract has been renewed.
The reports still lack these details, making it difficult to tell how long employees have held positions or what other city contracts they may have been awarded.
The City Council has made efforts over the years to crack down on perceived abuses related to personal services contracts. In 2012, Councilman Ikaika Anderson pushed for a ballot initiative that would give the council more control over policies related to the contracts. Anderson’s resolution, which ultimately failed, noted that the contracts could circumvent “normal civil service procedures that help to ensure that city employment is based on merit principles.”
Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who chairs the Budget Committee, said that she wasn’t concerned about the contracts, noting that it gave city departments flexibility to hire employees outside of a civil service recruiting system that can be cumbersome.
“There are many departments that are short of people and after awhile they go into doing a contract position because sometimes it takes too long to go through the hiring process,” she said. “As long as the government runs efficiently, that’s what I care about.”
Civil Beat unsuccessfully sought interviews with the city’s Department of Human Resources over several weeks for this report. The mayor’s communications director, Jesse Broder Van Dyke, did not respond to several emails from Civil Beat requesting an interview with HR Director Carolee Kubo, or to a voice mail seeking to discuss the story. A call to the HR department was not returned.
Subsequently, Broder Van Dyke told a Civil Beat editor that the administration would prefer to respond to emailed questions. Told that this was contrary to Civil Beat’s reporting practices, he did not respond further.
Civil Beat also tried to reach Carolyn Onaga, the chair of the Civil Service Commission, leaving a message with the commission’s secretary. The commission, made up of volunteers appointed by the mayor, is administratively attached to the Department of Human Resources and is in charge of hearing civil service appeals and advising the mayor and HR director on personnel issues.
Adam LeFebvre, who handles media inquires for the Mayor’s Office, responded instead, telling Civil Beat that it would need to file a formal public records request in order to interview Onaga.
However, public records requests pertain to attempts to obtain government documents. After Civil Beat protested, the Mayor’s Office agreed that a records request was not needed, but said that Onaga was “unavailable to participate in an interview at this time.”
Coincidentally, LeFebvre is employed under a personal services contract. He is listed as an Informational Affairs Specialist with the Department of Customer Services, earning $57,720 a year, even though he works in the Mayor’s Office. His contract began in October 2013 and so far has been extended through June 2015.
Below is a list of personal services contracts approved for the quarter ending September 2014, including hourly pay rates or salaries per month.