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Close nepotism bill loophole

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A Hawaii charter school principal’s hiring of four relatives for the school’s staff has prompted action in the Legislature to ban nepotism throughout state and county government. The hirings at Myron B. Thompson Academy demonstrate the need for such a prohibition, except in extraordinary situations. However, the bill being considered by the Legislature contains a potentially large loophole that should be closed.

Senate Bill 994, approved by the state Senate last week, allows the hiring of relatives under "circumstances where the relative is highly qualified for the position." That could mean just about anything from the standpoint of the person doing the hiring. The language needs to be more restrictive.

The issue arose in December when the Star-Advertiser’s Susan Essoyan reported that the principal of Thompson Academy had hired four relatives. They include an athletic director for the online school with no sports teams, a vice principal who also has a full-time job as an airline flight attendant, a film/video gaming teacher and a clerk.

Curtis Muraoka, vice president of the Hawaii Charter Schools Network, testified at the Legislature in favor of the bill. He said the organization will urge the 31 charter schools to adopt "best practices in hiring and advancement" regardless of "whether or not this bill is passed into law." The state Charter School Review Panel has more muscle and has put the Thompson Academy on probation. It also has the power to revoke schools’ charters.

It comes as no surprise that Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha opposes the bill, a view shared by the administration of Mayor Peter Carlisle. Across the country, police careers are often passed down from one generation to the next, and Honolulu’s thin blue line is the only police force in town. However, the bill would simply keep a public official from using his or her authority to hire or promote the hiring of a relative. The relative would have to apply independently; there is nothing wrong with that.

While the bill before the Legislature is identical to federal law in determining what relationships constitute nepotism — from parent to half-sibling — it could be more precise in allowing exceptions. For example, federal rules allow temporary appointments of relatives during national life-threatening emergencies or situations involving "special scientific needs." Under some circumstances, a federal employee may supervise a relative and work on the same project after having assigned a non-related manager to evaluate the relative’s performance and recommend promotions.

The broad exception in the Legislature’s bill was added because of concern that the ban was too sweeping. The addition itself is too sweeping; it could undermine the intent of the bill. Lawmakers should examine the federal rule, or rules in nearly half the other states that have similar bans, before approving a bill that could become a guide for how county and state officials can hire relatives and get away with it.

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