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Hawaii County audit focuses on nepotism, unfair hiring

COURTESY PHOTO
                                Tyler Benner
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COURTESY PHOTO

Tyler Benner

A Hawaii County audit has concluded the county does not have enough rules in place to prevent nepotism and unfairness in the hiring process for government positions.

County Auditor Tyler Benner presented the findings of a “whistleblower investigation report” at a County Council committee hearing in June after multiple unspecified allegations of unfair hiring practices.

While Benner’s presentation did not confirm ongoing or widespread nepotism among county hires, he reported that its policies do not adequately prevent conflicts of interest, particularly compared with state anti-­nepotism laws.

Benner said the investigation, which began after his office received a call Feb. 28, centered around a single county department but found several faults that also could be recurring in other departments.

In particular, Benner noted that interview panels often have less than 30 minutes to identify potential conflicts of interests when reviewing lists of applicants for a job.

He added that at least one supervisor during the investigation failed to recuse themselves from a hiring panel despite a potential conflict of interest, and the department also allowed candidates to “field test” before an interview, circumventing the competitive recruitment process.

While Benner said the county charter does include a provision prohibiting a county supervisor from appointing or promoting a relative within their own department, it does not have a similar policy to a state law passed in 2023 that includes more extensive prohibitions.

While the 2023 state law includes the same provision against appointing or promoting family members as the county, it also prohibits state employees from awarding contracts that could benefit family members, as well as establishes penalties for violations. The law also provides for certain exceptions to the rule — for example, if an employee has a specific physical impairment that requires the employment of a particular relative.

Benner noted that the possibility of nepotism has been a known problem within the county — a 2022 audit of the Department of Human Resources’ hiring practices had similarly recommended a more robust definition of nepotism, familial relationships and a better system of oversight.

“We recognized this as being a potential issue back in 2022 … (but) at that time we were told there wasn’t a state policy to align to,” Benner said. Now that the state policy is on the books, he said, the time is right to revise the county’s processes.

Among his recommendations were new policies requiring prospective employees and interviewers to clearly declare any familial connections upfront, as well as a less specific recommendation for a comprehensive countywide policy “to ensure that the hiring and promotion of relatives are conducted fairly and impartially.”

Council members received Benner’s report with little comment.

While Kona Council member Rebecca Villegas acknowledged there are “a lot of people related to one another on this island,” she reiterated that there needs to be greater accountability to offset the possibility of favoritism.

Kohala Council member Cindy Evans said she “personally (doesn’t) see an issue with having family connections and people working in the same government. … That’s irrelevant, people can do the job,” but she agreed the hiring process should be kept as free from familial bias as possible.

Benner later urged residents to contact the auditor’s office if they suspect fraud, waste or abuse within county government. Inquiries can be submitted confidentially at concern@hawaiicounty.gov, or more specific contacts can be found at tinyurl.com/4kd5s92y.

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