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The departure of Luella Costales from the Honolulu Police Commission means the oversight agency will need to collaborate more on future decisions, including the selection of a new chief.
According to commission rules, a majority of the seven-member body is required to take any action, even though with Costales’ resignation there are only five commissioners are left. Another seat has been vacant for months.
That means only two “no” votes are needed to sink a motion.
This is significant because recent events have shown a clear divide among commissioners when it comes to certain issues related to transparency, including providing taxpayer-funded legal services to officers accused of misconduct in criminal or civil proceedings.
On one side are Max Sword, Cha Thompson and Eddie Flores, all of whom are long-time commissioners. Sword was reappointed in 2016 by Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
On the other side are Loretta Sheehan and Steven Levinson, distinguished lawyers with penchants for speaking out and following the letter of the law when it comes to conducting commission business.
In some recent instances, Sword, Thompson and Flores have relied on the legal advice of the Department of Corporation Counsel, which is led by Caldwell-appointee Donna Leong, rather than giving credence to their colleagues.
The new dynamics aren’t lost on Sheehan. She said commissioners now must work together if they hope to get anything done. She admits that might not always be easy.
“What we’re faced with is what can be characterized as the new guard and the old guard,” Sheehan said. “Given the friction that has existed between the new guard and the old guard and given what is essentially veto power that both sides have over the other, we are absolutely compelled to collaborate in a way that we haven’t before.”
The Police Commission has a long history of working behind closed doors. It’s also been criticized for not doing an adequate job responding to claims of officer misconduct.
All that began to change with Caldwell’s appointments of Sheehan, a former assistant U.S. attorney, and Levinson, a retired Hawaii Supreme Court associate justice, to the commission.
Sheehan and Levinson have been outspoken about how the commission operates. This has led to some friction, which came to the fore this summer when Levinson proclaimed that “Democracies die behind closed doors.”
In July, Sheehan and Levinson threatened to walk out of a meeting after their colleagues voted to hold a pair of contested case hearings for police officers behind closed doors.
Sheehan and Levinson argued that doing so was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment rights of the public and the media. They said it also violated state law.
The duo also took a more liberal stance on when officers are qualified to be represented in legal matters by city attorneys or those hired by taxpayers.
They said it appeared the commission, with the backing of city attorneys, had been misinterpreting the law for years so as to make it harder for officers to get legal counsel.
When there was disagreement about whether an officer was entitled to legal fees, Sheehan and Levinson found themselves in the minority.
But Sheehan senses change on the horizon. The “old guard” commissioners, she said, are more likely to speak their minds than they once were.
“In a process that has occasionally been ungraceful and sometimes hostile, we are discovering a way to be comfortable with disagreement and we’re becoming more comfortable with respecting one another’s differences of opinion,” Sheehan said. “Every commissioner is finding their own voice and that is a good thing. That’s a very, very good thing.”
Sword, who was elected chairman in December 2016, said he has tried to bring a collaborative approach to the commission, and that he hopes that will continue after Caldwell appoints two more commissioners.
Discussing the current divisions, he said simply, “We’ll get through it.”
“It’s not that big of a divide,” Sword said. “We’re working through it and we’ll see where it goes. We’ll come to some kind of consensus.”
Why it’s taken so long for Caldwell to fill vacancies on the commission is another matter, especially when HPD is still in the middle of a search for a new police chief after the previous one, Louis Kealoha, resigned amid a federal corruption probe.
Costales’s term expired in December, and she was serving in a holdover capacity until her decision to resign Monday over concerns with the selection process for a new police chief.
Former Commissioner Marc Tilker, who Caldwell had reappointed to a new five-year term in 2013, resigned in May, and the mayor has yet to find a replacement.
Andrew Pereira, a spokesman for Caldwell, said the the search for new appointees is underway. Pereira made a similar statement in July.
“It’s a matter of the mayor finding candidates with the qualities and credentials to be good stewards of the Honolulu Police Department, while also possessing a good understanding of the trust that must exist between the public and HPD,” Pereira said.