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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 27, 2004

Bills seek to make sure agencies are independent

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Legislation aimed at ensuring the independence of the Campaign Spending Commission and the Office of Elections has been introduced by Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa.

But state Comptroller Russ Saito, head of the Department of Accounting and General Services to which the two quasi-independent agencies are attached, said the bills are unnecessary and he has no intention of running the agencies.

Language in Senate Bill 183 would allow officials with the two agencies to communicate directly with the Legislature and make other decisions without the approval of the comptroller. The language in Senate Bill 203 would simply attach the administrative functions of the two agencies with the Judiciary.

Hanabusa, D-21st (Wai'anae, Makaha), said she introduced the measures after being told by Saito that he had "permitted" Bob Watada, executive director of the Campaign Spending Commission, to testify before her committee against a bill introduced by the Lingle administration.

"How can you say you're 'permitting' (Watada) to speak?" Hanabusa said. "He's always spoken before us and we look to him as the person who addresses the Legislature on campaign spending matters."

The commission and the Office of Elections were attached administratively to DAGS last summer as a result of legislative action. Before that, they were both under the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.

Dwayne Yoshina, chief elections officer, deferred media inquiries to Saito's office "because if it's a policy matter, the comptroller will speak." Yoshina declined to answer questions, but acknowledged" "there is a change in the way the administration operates and that's their prerogative."

Saito said state attorneys feel that he, as a department director, is the chief spokesman for those agencies attached to his department.

He cited an opinion issued by Attorney General Mark Bennett which states that a department head must be administratively responsible for eight areas as they relate to a department's attached agencies. Among those responsibilities is to "represent the board or commissions in communications with the governor and the Legislature."

Watada, who serves at the pleasure of the Campaign Spending Commission appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, said he does not agree. "My understanding is if there's a position the commission wants to take, then I have to, as a messenger, convey that message to the Legislature unfiltered, unedited," Watada said.

Saito said he doesn't want, nor does he have the authority, to control what Watada and the commission have to say. He said he did not mean to "permit" Watada to testify but to simply inform him of what he will say.

Quasi-judicial functions of boards and commissions are not to be subject to the approval, review or control of department heads, Saito said. Further, the head of a department cannot supervise a board or commission in the exercise of its duties and powers. "That's what guarantees the autonomy and independence of boards and commissions," he said.

But both Watada and Hanabusa say they're worried about what else the administration may be trying to control.

Watada said both his office and the Office of Elections have run into difficulty with hiring staff in the past year.

Meanwhile, Hanabusa said that after hearing complaints from people associated with other boards and commissions, she and other lawmakers are looking at inserting language into state statutes that would ensure that they also will remain independent.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluludvertiser.com or at 525-8070.