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When Honolulu Police Commission Chairman Max Sword met several times behind closed doors with a city attorney to craft a $250,000 payout for then-Police Chief Louis Kealoha, City Council members wanted to know what was going on.
Sword declined to answer most of their inquiries at a Jan. 10 meeting, then rejected Council Chair Ron Menor’s request for a follow-up meeting regarding the evolving retirement deal for Kealoha, who was under federal investigation.
“We were in the dark the entire time,” said Councilman Ikaika Anderson. “If my constituents ask me questions, I want to at least get those questions answered.”
Now Anderson has introduced a measure that would give the City Council the power to select three of the seven police commissioners, who are all currently appointed by the mayor and then approved by the council.
Anderson is proposing the council and mayor each appoint three commissioners. The seventh would be a retired police officer who held the rank of captain or higher, chosen by the other commissioners.
Another measure introduced by Anderson would create a similar process for the Honolulu Fire Commission.
Sword said he’s reserving comments until Wednesday, when the City Council will publicly discuss the proposals for the first time.
“I really have no comments other than if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do,” Sword said.
Police commissioners Loretta Sheehan and Steve Levinson say changing the way commissioners are chosen won’t necessarily increase transparency. Both said that like City Council members, they were left out of the negotiation process.
“We didn’t know what the terms of the negotiation were until roughly an hour before we were asked to vote,” Levinson said. “Future commissioners could be equally limited in discussions with the City Council.”
If Anderson’s resolutions pass the council, they require Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s approval. He could not be reached for comment.
They’d then go on the 2018 general election ballot.
Police and fire commissioners would respond to council members’ questions “adequately” and “in a timely manner” if the changes are made, the resolutions state.
“It’s been working really well in regards to Council members having access to the people that we directly appoint to the HART board,” Anderson said.
But Sheehan said council members shouldn’t be relying on responses from people they appoint.
“Calling up your guy on the Police Commission to get answers lacks transparency, and threatens the integrity of the Police Commission’s work as a collaborative body,” Sheehan wrote in an email. “If the City Council has a question or concern, then it should be addressed to all Commissioners, and in a public manner.”
Councilwoman Kymberly Pine said she supports efforts to increase transparency, but said publicly sharing information has more to do with what the Corporation Counsel recommends and the rules of each city board or commission.
“Just changing who appoints (commissioners), I don’t know if that would change the rules about how each commission communicates with council members or the mayor’s office,” Pine said.
“Maybe that’s something that we can look into,” she said.
The resolutions also say the change in how members are selected would give the commission a “broader perspective” in overseeing their departments and, in the case of the Police Commission, in choosing the police chief.
Retired police or fire officials could offer insight into their departments’ day-to-day operations, according to the resolutions.
Ten months after he agreed to the retirement payout from the Police Commission, Kealoha and his city prosecutor wife, Katherine, were arrested by the FBI and indicted on 20 counts, including criminal conspiracy. If convicted of a felony within six years of his retirement, Kealoha is supposed to repay the $250,000.
The charges stem from allegations that the Kealohas framed a family member for the theft of their mailbox along with the help of several officers who were part of an elite unit within HPD that performs surveillance and other covert operations to thwart organized crime and terrorism.
When the FBI launched its investigation in December 2014, Caldwell described it as “a private matter.” The Police Commission also refused to take action, and at one point its chairman said it had no knowledge that an investigation was even underway.
The lack of action, combined with numerous other instances of officer misconduct, took a toll on the commission’s credibility. Last year voters approved a charter amendment to give the agency more authority to perform investigations.
At the same Wednesday meeting when Anderson’s resolutions will be introduced, council members will consider approving the mayor’s appointment of Dick Grimm, a former TV executive, to the Police Commission. He would be the sixth member of the commission appointed by Caldwell.