The Honolulu Police Commission won’t meet with the City Council about a retirement deal for Police Chief Louis Kealoha, who has agreed to leave the department in the midst of a federal criminal probe but is still negotiating his exit.

On Friday, Police Commission Chairman Max Sword sent a letter to City Council Chairman Ron Menor declining Menor’s request that the council be briefed about Kealoha’s retirement deal before it is approved.

He noted the commission, which is made up of seven volunteer members appointed by the mayor, is the only entity that can hire or fire a chief. Any retirement deal, he said, falls strictly under the commission’s purview.

HPD Commission Chair Max Sword gestures to media that he will talk to us after their decision. Shortly after this gesture we got booted, commission went into executive session. 4 jan 2017
Police Commission Chairman Max Sword has continually defended the secrecy surrounding its negotiations for a retirement deal with the police chief. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

“The Commission takes its responsibilities under the Revised Charter of Honolulu very seriously,” Sword said. “Those responsibilities include the appointment, evaluation and, if appropriate, the removal of the chief of police. As the appointing authority for the chief of police, the Commission’s discussions and actions with regard to the performance of the chief of police is a personnel matter.”

Sword was responding to a letter Menor sent him Thursday that asked for a joint meeting to discuss Kealoha’s future before the Jan. 18 police commission meeting, when a deal with the chief might be finalized.

Some council members have expressed concern that the chief, who is under federal investigation for public corruption and abuse of power, could be getting a cash settlement in addition to his regular pension which is estimated to be more than $150,000 a year.

They also wanted to know whether the City Council, which typically signs off on legal settlements, would need to approve any buyout that is not part of Kealoha’s original retirement plan as a city employee.

“Our constituents have raised significant concerns about the possibility of the Commission entering into a retirement agreement with Chief Kealoha without knowing all of the details,” Menor wrote. “The members of the City Council would like to understand how the Commission is managing the Chief’s retirement after 33 years with the department.”

The commission has been discussing Kealoha’s future in secret, despite criticism that such meetings may violate the state’s Sunshine Law.

Honolulu City Council Chair Ron Menor3. 3 jan 2017
Honolulu City Council Chair Ron Menor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

City Council members tried to get more details about the pending retirement deal from Sword during a committee hearing Wednesday, but he continually dodged questions, citing the ongoing negotiations with Kealoha and his attorneys.

Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, the city’s top attorney and a member of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s cabinet, has been closely involved in the commission’s actions pertaining to Kealoha. She stood beside Sword when he announced to the media that the chief had decided to retire.

In his letter to Menor, Sword characterized the chief’s retirement as a personnel matter that requires privacy. He cited a section in the Sunshine Law that states that commissioners could be guilty of a misdemeanor and kicked off the commission should they violate certain provisions of the law.

According to the letter:

The Commission is aware of the concerns that have been raised by elected officials, including yourself, other councilmembers and the Mayor, about the possibility of the Commission entering into a retirement agreement with Chief Kealoha who, along with other officers of the HPD, has received a so-called ‘target letter’ from the U.S. Department of Justice. Please be assured that the Commission is equally, if not more, concerned about those target letters, especially because of the negative reflection they create on the entire HPD.

However, of utmost importance to the Commission is that HPD be allowed, to the extent possible in connection with this particular personnel matter, to come out from under the cloud of uncertainty and to move forward in a positive matter as quickly as possible.

Sword told Menor that the commission did not believe the City Council had the authority to approve Kealoha’s settlement because no “employment claim” has been made. Instead, Sword said “the primary purpose of the agreement is to effect his retirement in a way that is least disruptive to the HPD.”

The Honolulu Police Commission is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the chief’s retirement package. In addition to a lump sum cash payment, some commissioners have said they expect it to include a provision that prevents the chief from taking certain legal actions against the commission once the deal is finalized.

You can read Menor and Sword’s letters here:

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