Questions are being raised about whether as elected board members the employees can effectively question their bosses.

Nine employees of the Honolulu Neighborhood Commission Office, the city agency that oversees Oahu’s 33 neighborhood boards, have signed up to run for elected seats on the boards themselves.

The unusual development is raising concerns over conflict of interest. Some longtime board members note that as city employees they will have a hard time criticizing city decisions or neighborhood commission policies that would require them to defy their bosses. Neighborhood boards are frequently at loggerheads with elected and appointed city officials.

Elections for the boards are just getting underway, as 425 candidates begin vying for seats on the island’s boards. Voting begins Friday and runs until May 19.

The Neighborhood Commission Office employs a total of 13 people — nine of them are running for seats on various boards.

Residents turned out en masse at a Waimanalo Neighborhood Board meeting in 2019 to protest a controversial city plan to build a ball field complex at a popular and historic beach park. The project was eventually halted. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2019)

“That is definitely disturbing. It seems like there is a basic conflict of interest,” said attorney Rich Turbin, chair of the Waialae-Kahala Neighborhood Board, where he has served for more than 40 years. He said that neighborhood commission employees have taken board seats in the past but only rarely.

Nine doing it now “seems crazy high,” he said.

Larry Veray, chairman of the Pearl City Neighborhood Board, said that nine of them running at the same time “seemed too much of a coincidence.” He believes having so many city employees on the boards could undermine resident confidence that the boards will listen to their concerns and advocate for them.

“Where is the trust going to be?” he asked.

Julie Reyes Oda, an Ewa Beach neighborhood board member, questioned the mayor publicly about the issue, at a town hall he held on March 21. City officials say there is no conflict, that city workers should be allowed to serve on any boards they want, and that city employees will recuse themselves from votes that might present a conflict of interest for themselves.

In an email to Reyes Oda, Honolulu managing director Mike Formby wrote that the Honolulu City Charter specifically allows city employees to serve on boards, and that none of the neighborhood board candidates would seek to serve on boards where they already work as employees.

In an interview, Lloyd Yonenaka, executive secretary of the neighborhood commission, said his employees were fully within their rights to run and that their presence on boards could be beneficial. Many neighborhood board members have served for decades and the infusion of commission employees, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, could bring fresh blood to the boards, he said.

“I don’t discourage it, I encourage it,” he said. “I want them to buy into the system.”

Some longtime board members think it is a good idea to bring on neighborhood board employees.

“It could be a plus,” said Mitchell Tynanes, chair of the Ewa Neighborhood Board, noting that he frequently consults with commission employees about the proper rules for conducting meetings and procedures. “They are a wealth of knowledge.”

Stephen Woods, chair of the Aiea Neighborhood Board, said he considered neighborhood commission employees to be well-informed on constituent issues and likely to prove assets if they get elected. He thinks they should not be allowed to serve as board chairs.

“Neighborhood assistant members shouldn’t be chairs,” he said. “That is a problem. It is up to us chairs to challenge the neighborhood commission.”

Dylan Whitsell, whose serves as Yonenaka’s deputy, is running for reelection this year. He recently became chair of the Diamond Head/Kapahulu/St. Louis Heights Neighborhood Board.

That board was much in the news last year when members, led by then-board chairman Andrew Salenger, confronted city officials over problems created by a private road, Leahi Avenue, that a local resident said she had purchased.

The Diamond Head neighborhood board organized to force the city to take legal possession of Leahi Avenue, a thoroughfare that had been made into a private road, arguing that it was a community hazard. The city took it over last year. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2021)

Whitsell joined the board last summer when he volunteered to take a vacant seat. He was subsequently elected vice-chair and in January, was elected to chair the board.

In an email, he rejected the idea that his participation could be a conflict of interest, noting that he is an active volunteer in his community, who serves as a docent at the Diamond Head State Monument and works on community cleanup events.

“I do not find it unusual that community members who are just like everyone else and who have every right to join a Neighborhood Board are doing so,” he wrote in an email. He said that rules related to recusals apply to everyone.

Reyes Oda said she was surprised to see the surge of commission employees running for board seats when she was reviewing the list of who was running for office. She recognized many of the names, but their campaign statements didn’t say they were employees of the neighborhood commission.

The commission employees running for board seats, besides Whitsell, are Judi-Ann Smith Kauhane, Partner Akiona, Thomas Baldwin, Lindon Valenciano, Naomi Hanohano, Dylan Buck, Zhoydell Magaoay and Travis Saito.

Most of the nine are neighborhood assistants. They staff the boards, provide expertise on Roberts Rules of Order and the Sunshine Act and provide support services to the boards. They also help set up the chairs and tables for the board meetings and manage internet connections to facilitate video testimony. As neutral observers, they prepare minutes of the meeting proceedings and distribute agendas for upcoming meetings.

Others are departmental supervisors.

They also serve as support staff to the mayor. Several of them have been working recently helping to run the 11 town halls that Mayor Rick Blangiardi is conducting around the islands.

Hanohano, the neighborhood commission’s community relations specialist, is running for the Nanakuli board, along with her husband, Eddie.

“Long story short, there is a lot that could be improved in Nanakuli and I have seen the power of the boards and if I can help in any way, I am willing to serve on the board because I live on homestead land and if I can leave a better Nanakuli for my grandchildren (if they choose to live there), then it would be worth the work,” she wrote in an email.

Buck, who is running for the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board, said he wants to set a good example for other young people to participate in cleanups and community service, “that the public can physically see and appreciate.”

Board members elsewhere on the island are questioning how the neighborhood commission will be able to monitor the election if its own employees are running for posts on the boards themselves.

Managing director Formby said in his email to Reyes Oda that no one who was running for a seat would play a role in monitoring the election. The election monitors include Yonenaka, NCO senior clerk Jackson Foley and a third person not employed by the commission, he wrote.

Ala Wai flood control
A number of basins and detention centers in the watershed’s upper reaches were cut from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ control plans after seven neighborhood boards protested a plan they said protected Waikiki but hurt them.

The neighborhood board system was created through a city charter revision in 1973. The boards’ most important power is the ability to pass resolutions that reflect community consensus on issues that affect them. Their actions are to some extent ceremonial because the boards serve only in an advisory capacity for the state and Honolulu and their actions don’t have the force of law.

But they represent an important sounding board for constituent concerns. Lawmakers and government officials generally attend their meetings regularly or send staff to represent them there. They have at times proved to be a thorn in the side for a succession of mayors, such as the unified protest against ball field construction at Waimanalo’s Sherwood Forest, now known as Hunananiho.

The boards have been building their effectiveness by sharing information with each other more regularly. That has led to an increasing trend of more boards passing resolutions in support of each other and in awareness of a common challenge.

This happened in a dramatic way in 2019, when seven boards called for a halt to the controversial Ala Wai Canal flood-control plan developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent flood damage in Waikiki in the event of a major storm. It called for building a network of 10 debris and detention basins, some of them concrete-reinforced, in the Ala Wai watershed area and in Manoa, Palolo and Makiki valleys, with obtrusive walls of varying heights to be built along the canal.

The project stalled after the boards asked for the project to be rethought.

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