HSTA election debacle headed to the courts

The campaign team that received a majority of votes during the union's recent officers election has announced that it intends to sue to overturn the recent decision to throw out the election results and hold a new election.

News Report
Will Caron

The campaign team of Corey Rosenlee, Justin Hughey and Amy Perruso held a press conference Thursday, May 21, in which they announced their intent to file an injunction blocking the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) from holding a new election. The union’s board voted Saturday, May 16, to throw out the election results, which declare the Rosenlee team victorious, based on vague claims of impropriety during the election. Because of these improprieties, the board also voted to hold a new, walk-in only election on Tuesday, June 2.

Rosenlee, Hughley, and Perruso announced that, unless they hear from the HSTA leadership immediately, they will bring legal action early next week to: “(1) enjoin the HSTA from proceeding with the new election, and (2) invalidate the votes that improperly took place on May 16, thereby compelling the HSTA to accept the results of the election that was conducted.”

“Suing the HSTA is the last thing we wanted to do, but it is our only recourse,” said Rosenlee. “How else can we hope to obtain justice for those who supported us?”

Following certification of the votes by the Elections Committee, the HSTA Board met this past Saturday (May 16, 2015), for the ostensible purpose of “approv[ing] the certification of the 2015 HSTA Elections and NEA Elections.” 

“Instead, members of the Board who supported the losing slate of candidates—Team 2015, spearheaded by current HSTA Vice President Joan Lewis—made vague and unsupported allegations of impropriety at the meeting,” said Rosenlee.

In a recent letter to the public, and in recent media interviews, Wil Okabe, the current President of HSTA, has reiterated those allegations in an apparent attempt to justify HSTA’s decision to, for the first time ever, reject the results of an election and hold a new one instead:

The Board discussed various reported irregularities in the election process including the following:

• Several Board members reported not receiving their own ballots;
• Many teachers complained to Board members that they did not receive their e-mail ballot, the mailed ballot, or both;
• Many teachers complained directly to HSTA citing they did not receive a ballot;
• Board members believe that others simply waited for a ballot that never came;
• Issues were raised about possible campaign violations regarding the distribution of campaign materials at schools and at HSTA events;
• Issues were raised regarding candidates exposing HSTA to state ethics violations by instructing faculty representatives to place campaign materials in areas of the school that are prohibited by law.
• The company handling the distribution of the ballots and counting of the votes made a number of errors including: release of the e-mailed ballot count before the actual count date, thus compromising the integrity of the election; and not providing a visual counting of ballots for observers and candidates as required.

Because of the irregularities experienced in the voting process, your Board made the decision to redo the state elections.

“The issue with the Ethics Commission was that teacher mailboxes are state property, thus flyers for campaigns constitute campaigning on state property, which is prohibited,” said Kris Coffield, the campaign manager for the Rosenlee team. “[The Hawaii State Ethics Commission] said it was an “individual benefit,” unless the flyers came from HSTA itself.”

But Coffield says this issue was resolved prior to the election being held. “The Hawaii Labor Relations Board issued an injunction prior to the election barring enforcement of the Ethics Commission’s ruling.”

Another big allegation in Okabe’s letter is that the company that handled the distribution of the ballots and the counting of the votes, Intelliscan, may have mishandled the election. But Coffield told the Independent that Intelliscan denies those allegations.

“We were told that [Intelliscan] sent a letter to HSTA denying any fault with their services,” said Coffield.

“Intelliscan followed all HSTA rules and regulations regarding the 2015 election,” John Arbitell, an account manager for the company, told the Independent in an email. “All of Intelliscan’s internal controls and procedures were in place to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the election.”

Between April 13 and April 24, HSTA conducted an election by email and mailed ballots to elect its officers and National Education Association (NEA) delegates. The results of the election were transmitted to the Elections Committee on or about May 2, at which time the results for all races, except Vice President, were certified. 

The Elections Committee correctly determined that a runoff was required to determine which of the Vice President candidates would win because none of the three candidates for the position received the required 50 percent of votes. That runoff election was conducted via ballots mailed to all members and was completed on May 15, 2015. It is believed that on or about May 16, the Elections Committee certified the results for the Vice President election.

Per the results certified by the Elections Committee (and as required by the Bylaws of the HSTA), Corey Rosenlee was declared President-elect, Justin Hughey was declared Vice President-elect, and Amy Perruso was declared Secretary/Treasurer-elect. (Bylaws, Art. XI, Sec. 2.c. “The Elections Committee shall administer the counting of the ballots and certify the results of the election to the Board. The candidates receiving the majority of the votes cast for each of the offices named herein shall be declared elected.”) Each of these races was decided by more than 150 votes.

Fifteen NEA delegate positions were also certified by the Elections Committee. The number of votes separating the lowest winning candidate and the highest losing candidate for NEA delegate was 37. Consequently, the closest NEA delegate race was decided by 37 votes. Only the race for NEA Director was decided by fewer votes: 12.

That 12-vote margin is the reason cited by the HSTA board members who pushed for a rejection of the election results as evidence of the need to redo the vote. There were 12 teachers who complained about not receiving ballots. While Rosenlee’s group acknowledges the dozen teacher complaints, Coffield also says that, in each of the 12 instances, HSTA staff promptly rectified the situation by providing a ballot, and the member was able to cast a vote.

One of the NEA Director candidates, Fran Bellinger, actually suggested, at the May 16 meeting, that the board simply hold a re-vote on her race, rather than all of the races, but her suggestion was rejected.

No evidence of actual wrongdoing and/or that voting was impacted in any of their races was presented, according to the Rosenlee team. Despite being requested to do so, HSTA has refused to release any information regarding any of these allegations.

On the other hand, the board itself has a string of improprieties leveled against it that are much harder to explain, and which cast the integrity of the union into doubt.

“Over 2/3 of the board members … believed that the original election was flawed to the point that it disenfranchised members from chapters around the state,” wrote Okabe. “As elected representatives, they did their due diligence to follow up on concerns raised by their teachers, and found that this was the proper recourse.”

But members of both campaign teams currently sit on the board, and HSTA bylaws require that board members recuse themselves from votes that will impact their own campaign interests. Yet, when the board voted on May 16 (21–8) to reject the results of the election, none of those board members recused themselves. Such a vote requires a two thirds majority to pass, and more than a dozen members improperly participated in the vote. Had these members properly abstained, as they were required to do, the two thirds majority could not have been achieved.

“All the energy to reject the election results came from Joan Lewis’ faction,” Coffield said.

One member of the Lewis team, Osa Tui, who ran against Perruso for Secretary-Treasurer, has openly admitted that he lost the election to Perruso, suggesting that his team should do the same. “If my name appears on the ballot, I will quit HSTA and become a fee payer,” wrote Tui in an email to HSTA Executive Director Wilbert Holck on May 17.

The board also voted to hold a new election on May 16. HSTA has refused to release the meeting minutes, but HSTA has announced that it intends to conduct a 3 hour walk-in only re-vote on June 2. Rosenlee has requested information on the campaign rules for the June 2 election and whether the rules were voted on by the Elections Committee or the HSTA Board of Directors, but HSTA leadership has failed to respond. Voting locations for the new election have not been announced and the manner in which the new election is to be carried out has not been fully explained and may violate the Election Committee’s rules and the HSTA’s Governance Manual. (HSTA Governance Manual Sec. 421. II.A.  (Election Rules for HSTA Officers: “Ballots will be mailed and made available electronically to the membership…”)

Perhaps strangest of all though, was the board’s decision to pass a New Business Item during the May 16 meeting which essentially says that the current HSTA leadership will remain in place indefinitely, until the new election results are secured.

“It’s completely unprecedented,” said Coffield. “Court cases can drag on for years; so Wil Okabe is going to stay president during that whole period of time until the court makes a decision?”

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the board refused to certify the election because they didn’t like the winners,” wrote Andy Jones Gilchrist Haas, an English teacher at Radford High School, in a Facebook post.

“The integrity of our union is at stake,” said Rosenlee. “We ran in this election because we wanted to create positive change in our profession and to improve the quality of education in Hawaii for our children. Unfortunately, many of those who have controlled HSTA for years would prefer to maintain the status quo. Despite our running a clean campaign that emphasized issues, and our being victorious, the current HSTA leaders refuse to respect the democratic decision made by the Union’s members. The arrogance of the leadership in refusing to even meet with us or provide us (or the public) with honest answers exemplifies why so many teachers (and the general public) question the HSTA’s integrity. That is not democracy, it is not Aloha.”