Effort to reconsider council staff pay hikes fails

Attorney: Resolution ‘appears likely’ implied employment contract

Mike Molina

A resolution proposed by Maui County Council Member Mike Molina to return council staff salaries to their levels prior to the pay increase approved at a Jan. 2 meeting was voted down Friday by the full council.

Molina, who supported the increase on Jan. 2 and later changed his mind, said he wanted to bring the matter back for review to allow for transparency in the council decision-making process and to “clear my conscience.”

The Jan. 2 resolution posted on the council’s agenda provided step increases for the various staffers but the “proposed increases came during the

night” of the meeting so the public did not have advance notice, Molina said at Friday’s meeting.

Following the Jan. 2 meeting, which was the new council’s first, Molina said he fielded lots of calls and received emails including those from county employees, private sector employees and retirees. They were “very upset” and some questioned “our decision-making that night,” he said.

Molina said he needed more time to study the issue and that his attempt to halt the raises does not reflect the performance of the Office of Council Services staff, which he called “all very, very, good.”

The timing of the raises wasn’t so good, Molina added, noting that the six new council members should have more time to get to know staff and that a better time to consider salary increases would be during the budget review.

“We need to be mindful that as elected officials, sure, we need to be sensitive to the needs of our own staff, but we represent the entire county of Maui here, our employees, as well as the people in the private sector, the retirees and everyone else,” Molina said.

Those voting in favor of revisiting the salary increases were Molina, Riki Hokama and Yuki Lei Sugimura. Those voting in opposition were Chairwoman Kelly King, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Alice Lee, Tamara Paltin, Tasha Kama and Shane Sinenci.

As King previously explained, she said the agenda posting was at the advice of former council Chairman Mike White, who urged listing only step-level designations and not dollar amounts of salaries.

The salary increases were aimed at bringing parity to all positions, King said. Over the years, some staffers received increases while others did not.

She also was concerned about the possible employment contract established by the Jan. 2 resolution and possible ramifications if the salaries were returned to their original levels.

Office of Council Services Supervising Legislative Attorney David Raatz said in a memo to King that “it appears likely” the resolution “established an implied employment contract with the employees appointed by the resolution.”

He added that a Hawaii court would likely conclude the employees do have a contractual right to employment under the County Charter, County Code and the resolution. A “diminution of salary during the council term would therefore subject the county to possible damages for breach of contract,” he said.

During discussion of Molina’s resolution, Lee said it is not a fair comparison between county civil service employees, who have union protection, and council staff, who are at-will employees.

“There is not real security with their position, unlike civil service,” she said of council employees.

Council members do support the public sector workers, she added.

“I would not reconsider my vote that we took early on the salaries,” Lee said. “Let’s face it, their bosses, us. . . .They have to report to nine crazy people.”

Unlike civil service, where there are levels of protocol and hierarchy, council services staff only has the council, Lee said.

Hokama agreed with Lee but appreciated Molina’s resolution. Hokama was the only member to oppose the increase Jan. 2.

But Hokama said council services employees should accept that they are “at will” and if they don’t agree with the terms they shouldn’t take the job. “I need people who want to be here,” Hokama said, and not those who need “a certain dollar amount.”

King had suggested at the Jan. 2 meeting that staffers may leave Council Services without the pay hikes.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.