WAILUKU — The commission charged with determining compensation for county leaders rejected pay raises for council members during a meeting Friday — after having earlier approved 3 percent cost-of-living increases for county department directors and deputies.
With only six of the nine members present, the Maui County Salary Commission did not approve 3 percent raises for council members. The vote was 3-2 in favor (with the chair not voting), but five votes were required for passage per commission rules.
The same panel approved 3 percent raises for directors and deputy directors in December; those took effect Jan. 1.
Four council members and one former council member testified in person and in writing Friday, noting the long hours required for the job and refuting what they said was a long-held misconception that council members are part-time employees.
“It’s definitely not a part-time job, and I knew it wasn’t a part-time job” said Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, who did not voice a position on increases or decreases. “I knew (as soon as) I couldn’t go to Foodland to go shopping in what I call my boro-boro clothes because people would stop me and ask me to help them with different issues.
“I now carry a tablet in my bag, or in my purse, because anytime somebody has a question for me or they want me to follow up on something, I’m ready.”
Elected leaders are not considered full- or part-time employees but instead are categorized as a unique class of public servant, Deputy Corporation Counsel Gary Murai clarified at the meeting. Benefits for elected officials by statute include membership in the employees retirement system, workers’ compensation, participation in the deferred compensation plan and health benefits.
“Unlike most employees, elected officials are not ‘hired’ and are not subject to discipline, other than by censure or recall and may not be subject to Hawaii wage and hour law,” according to Murai.
Maui County Council members are the highest paid in the state at $76,475, followed by the City and County of Honolulu, $64,008; Kauai County, $56,781; and Hawaii County, $52,008.
The Maui County Council chairperson is also the highest paid in the state at $82,225. Honolulu county pays $71,520; Kauai County, $63,879; and Hawaii County, $58,008.
In contrast, Honolulu’s mayor is paid $173,184; Maui County’s mayor receives $151,979; and Hawaii County and Kauai County mayors each earn $132,000.
The highest-paid Maui County directors and deputy directors are the leaders of the fire and public safety and police departments at $155,736 and $147,949 in both departments. The lowest-paid department head is the transportation director at $123,908 and deputy at $111,517.
“I request the Salary Commission adjust the pay of the mayor and the council to match,” said Council Member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who testified about 60-plus hour work weeks for council members during budget hearings. “It has been said that they were part-time and the mayor is full-time, but now that this has been disproven, it is pertinent that the commission correct this mistake and uphold the equality between the two branches of local government.”
She said the adjustment amount is up to the panel’s discretion.
“I would be happy to keep my pay the same and have the mayor’s pay adjusted to match ours or would be thankful for a raise . . . to match the mayor’s. I would be happy with the Salary Commission adjusting both pay rates to meet somewhere in the middle.”
Council Member Mike Molina, who did not take a position on a pay increase or decrease, testified via letter that “although council members are categorized as part-time employees, the reality is that council members work full-time hours and beyond.”
He said he was responding to Salary Commission Vice Chairwoman Kelly Swanson’s request, made at the commission’s Feb. 22 meeting, to hear from council members.
Council Member Alice Lee said in a letter that she is in favor of the 3 percent cost-of-living increase for council members.
“Unlike other counties, we are responsible for all districts on three different islands” she said. “Travel alone is very time-consuming and expensive.”
Former Council Member Don Guzman, confirmed April 5 as county prosecutor, testified about the “disparity between the hours that we put in on the council versus what I do now on the administrative side.”
“The council is putting in more than 40 hours a week, and they’re getting paid almost part-time work, I just don’t see the fairness in it,” he said.
Maui resident Stephen Smith testified against increases, saying he was “shocked” at the amount that council members currently make.
“It’s interesting when you talk 60 hours a week; for us in the private industry that’s standard,” he said. “I’m surprised, actually. I didn’t know they make that much. Coming from the private industry, some of my top people never make that kind of money.”
Joe Kent, executive vice president of Honolulu-based public policy think tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, said a February Maui County survey asking residents about council member pay showed that 70 percent were not aware that County Council members make a base salary of more than $76,000 and more than $123,000 when benefits are added.
The poll with 247 telephone call responses (6 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence level) also showed that more than 90 percent said that they believed the mayor and council members should be motivated, not by money, but by the opportunity to serve as public servants and help the community.
In all, 12 people testified in person or in writing; they called for decreasing pay for council members, removing the 3 percent increase recently implemented for directors, increasing pay and matching pay for the mayor and council members.
Another issue is whether the agenda for Friday’s meeting met Sunshine Law requirements. The agenda does not specify what salary proposals will be considered and lacks detail on percentage increases or decreases. All the agenda item says is there will be “discussion and possible action regarding a salary adjustment for members of the Maui County Council.”
Kathy Kaohu, executive aide to Council Member Tamara Paltin, asked in her testimony that the panel specify this information so the public can be given proper notice for possible testimony. After testimony and in an aside, she questioned whether the requirements of the Sunshine Law, requiring government openness, were met on this agenda item.
* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at email@example.com.