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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 18, 2001

UH salary 'sunshine' case rejected

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

A state judge yesterday refused to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent the University of Hawai'i from paying its incoming president's $442,000 annual salary.

Circuit Judge Virginia Crandall said the UH Board of Regents did not violate the state's open meetings laws when it decided the president's salary in a closed meeting.

The lawsuit filed by the Hawai'i Society of Professional Journalists, Common Cause Hawai'i and C. Mamo Kim, a graduate student leader at the university, accuses the board of flouting Hawai'i's Sunshine Law by holding secret meetings and not seeking public testimony when it set the president's salary.

"I think the university is getting away with something they're not supposed to," said Carl Varady, attorney for the plaintiffs. "We'll take it to the Supreme Court and see what they think."

An appeal could be filed as early as Monday morning, he said.

Trinity College President Evan Dobelle was hired by UH regents March 12 to replace outgoing president Kenneth Mortimer in July.

Dobelle's $442,000 salary eclipses Mortimer's $168,000 and is more than three times what Gov. Ben Cayetano earns.

The amount of the salary and the ultra-secret search methods used to recruit Dobelle have left bad feelings on a campus already troubled by budget woes, sliding national rankings and low faculty morale.

Professors and students thought they had been promised a list of the top finalists toward the end of the process, but it never materialized. Regents said they had to keep the names private to avoid losing qualified candidates.

Regents apparently held an unannounced meeting March 1 — when Dobelle was interviewed — and again March 5, when a second finalist was brought in and regents decided to offer the job to Dobelle.

Varady said the failure to post those meetings, along with a "rubber stamp" meeting held on March 12, violated the law. But Ruth Tsujimura, associate general counsel for UH, said the March 1 and March 5 meetings were actually a continuation of an earlier Board of Regents executive session.

Regents met Feb. 23 to receive the names of five finalists from the search committee, and then effectively recessed and reconvened twice in early March to interview candidates, she said.

"We are here because the Board of Regents made a hiring decision," Tsujimura said. "We do not deny that essential terms of employment were discussed in private." The regents have the right to make salary decisions in private, but did not vote on their final decision until the March 12 public meeting, she said.

Even if the law had been violated, Tsujimura said a restraining order would be too punitive because it would effectively set aside the employment agreement with Dobelle.

Kim and two other students have asked the board to hold a meeting on Dobelle's salary to allow public comment, but the board said it would not schedule further meetings on the matter.

Beverly Ann Keever, UH journalism professor, said she is most disturbed that Dobelle's salary was decided just days before a controversial tuition increase and at a time when the state was insisting that it could not afford a raise for faculty members. "No matter how it was done in the past, it seemed like very bad public relations if nothing else," she said.

Dobelle will start work July 2.