Kawauchi, Nago Agree To Meet On Election Solutions
In what appears to be the first thawing of a chilly relationship, the state’s top election official has extended an olive branch to embattled County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, and she has apparently accepted it.
Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago sent a letter Thursday to Kawauchi proposing to “rebuild the partnership” between the state and county, which share various election functions.
Nago proposed that all of the state’s county clerks, their election administrators and the staff of the state Office of Elections hold a series of workshops next month on various islands.
Nago said the focus of the workshops on Maui, Kauai and Oahu would be on learning how elections are carried out in those counties, and “to brainstorm together on trouble shooting” with Kawauchi on problems related to the recent primary election and issues that could come up in the Nov. 6 general election.
State election spokesman Rex Quidilla said today that the meetings on the other islands could help demonstrate procedures used there, but do not preclude a meeting at some point on the Big Island as well.
Kawauchi’s response to Nago, also sent Thursday, agreed to the meetings.
“We would be happy to participate in the workshops as you suggested during the week of September 17th through September 21st,” her letter said.
The position was a departure from Kawauchi’s previous stance. At a special meeting on Monday, several members of the County Council tried unsuccessfully to get Kawauchi to commit to seeking help from the state.
Kawauchi’s letter also said she will be holding a gathering of all Big Island precinct chairs and other elections staff in mid-September to discuss “challenges” that occurred during the primary, and invited Nago to attend.
“Thank you again for your letter. We look forward to working together to ensure a secure, open and honest election in November 6, 2012,” her letter concluded.
Nago’s letter Thursday said that during consultations he had with various elections officials some recommended that elected officials become involved, but he felt such efforts would best be done by those involved in the election process.
“If we can resolve this matter internally in the form of the focus of four county clerks and the Office of Elections, then we have done the public a great service,” he said.
The exchange of letters took place one day after the clerks of the other three counties – but not Kawauchi – met with the Hawai`i Elections Commission during a regularly scheduled meeting on Oahu.
Civil Beat reported that Kawauchi’s absence was noted by commissioners.
“I’m somewhat concerned that the county that experienced the most problem is not here today,” said Maui Commissioner Warren Orikasa. “The first sequence in that remedy [of the problems] is to participate with commission and Office of Elections. This absence really speaks volumes,” Orikasa said, according to Civil Beat.
County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, who appointed Kawauchi to the clerk’s post following the 2010 election, said today he did not know why Kawauchi did not attend the commission meeting Wednesday.
“You’ll have to ask her,” he said. Kawauchi, who he said was in meeting today at the state attorney general’s office, did not immediately return Big Island Now’s telephone call seeking comment.
Yagong said Kawauchi met with him on Tuesday at his request to discuss plans for the upcoming election. He said topics discussed included staffing and training, and Yagong said he told Kawauchi that she needed to improve relations with state elections officials.
“This public feud, this back and forth, serves the public absolutely no good,” he said. “It’s got to stop.”
Yagong said Thursday’s exchange of letters shows the two sides on the path to greater cooperation.
Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, who attended Wednesday’s commission meeting, said today he was pleased to hear that Kawauchi was receptive to Nago’s suggested meetings.
“That sounds great,” he said, noting that at the commission meeting he had expressed hope that commissioners could find ways for the state Office of Elections to assist Kawauchi prepare for the general election.
Onishi said he would prefer to see the interaction sooner than mid-September.
“At least they’re reaching out to help,” he said.
Onishi had been considering submitting a council resolution that would require Kawauchi to hire an experienced election worker for assistance, but he said now that may not be necessary.
Nago’s letter Thursday alluded to the contentious relationship between his office and Kawauchi, which has included both sides trading accusations of ineptitude and a lack of communication. He said that the public expression of “our difference of opinions” has caused the public “to lose trust in the integrity of the election and question the reliability of the general election.”
In late July, Nago called “simply unacceptable” Kawauchi’s unscheduled one-day closure of the Hilo elections office and her lack of communication with the public and his office, including a failure to immediately explain the reason for the closure.
During the election itself, delays of up to 1½ hours in the openings of some precincts prompted Gov. Neil Abercrombie to take the unprecedented action of extending voting hours at all Big Island polling stations.
Three days after the election, when Kawauchi was unable to provide information on the extent of the closures, Nago took control of the record books for the 40 Big Island polling places. Two days later he issued a scathing report blaming Kawauchi for “poor planning, implementation and leadership” in the election process.
A day after that, Kawauchi sent an email to Honolulu media saying that Nago was being overly critical, a position with which Yagong agreed.
Then on Monday, Kawauchi delivered her own report on the election problems during a special meeting of the council. Her report was again critical of state elections officials, saying they had failed to address problems she had raised 11 months earlier, and therefore they should take some responsibility.
Kawauchi’s report also noted errors by her staff that contributed to election problems, such as delivery mistakes and improper programming of phones provided to precinct workers.