Updated 5 p.m. 7/14/15
The Honolulu City Council’s history is pockmarked with ethical lapses when it comes to how members spend their annual contingency allowances.
A Civil Beat review of nearly $180,000 in expenses during the 2015 fiscal year, which ended June 30, shows significant improvements have been made.
None of the nine members currently on the council is routinely billing taxpayers for expensive meals, the subject of a major investigation five years ago. Nor does anyone appear to be getting double reimbursements by using campaign funds and city allowances to cover the same transportation costs, a big issue last year.
But there are still items that fall into a gray area that the current guidelines either don’t address or that differ from the rules that state lawmakers and county councils on the neighbor islands must follow, like whether charitable donations and appreciation lunches are an acceptable use of public money.
Council members each received $20,000 last year to use for official city purposes, which the council’s administrative manual defines as “reasonable and necessary for city business, and related to the conduct of official duties and activities of a member.”
That’s up from the $19,400 they each got the previous two years and more than double what they received a decade ago. State lawmakers, by contrast, each had an annual allowance of $13,000 last year.
The current council
Of the many things to say regarding last week’s unfortunate adoption of a new media policy by members of the Honolulu Ethics Commission, chief among them is this:
What were they thinking?
The seven-member panel approved a new policy effectively muzzling the commission’s executive director, Chuck Totto, requiring him to seek approval before discussing decisions or opinions with the press. The commission would have the public believe this is a desirable way to promote public understanding of its sometimes complex and nuanced decisions.
But no one’s buying it.
As Civil Beat’s Nick Grube reported, the commission only became interested in a new policy after Executive Director Chuck Totto spoke out on several matters involving Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. The three commissioners most involved in creating the policy — including its author, Commissioner Riki May Amano — are all former judges who were appointed by Caldwell to the commission over the past year. Thus, the guidelines not only deal a blow to the commission’s own credibility, but cast a pall over the Caldwell administration, as well.
Moreover, the guidelines were only approved after Totto reportedly made comments to media following the commission’s action on 72 ethics violations by former Honolulu City Councilman Nestor Garcia that resulted in an $8,100 fine.
Totto suggested that because Garcia didn’t disclose conflicts of interest before casting votes, those votes
The Honolulu Ethics Commission approved a new media policy Wednesday that effectively muzzles Executive Director Chuck Totto, who has long been an outspoken voice for good government.
According to the rules, Totto and his staff cannot “engage in media activities to air concerns/grievances regarding the operations of the Ethics Commission, or interpret or comment on any decisions or advisory opinions.”
Totto must also get approval from Ethics Commission Chairwoman Katy Chen or Vice Chairman Michael Lilly before talking to the press.
Chen was the only commissioner who voted against the policy. Lilly, a former Hawaii attorney general, was not at Wednesday’s meeting.
The policy has been in the works for some time and was written by new Ethics Commissioner Riki May Amano, a retired judge who was appointed by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
Amano is one of three commissioners appointed by Caldwell in the past year. The other two include Allene Suemori and Victoria Marks, who are also former judges.
The Caldwell administration has had a fractious relationship with Totto over budget cuts and the commission’s investigation into contributors to a fund to pay for Caldwell’s inaugural luau. Totto and his staff also have clashed with Caldwell over whether the mayor and his staff have stonewalled ethic investigations of city officials.
The new policy comes on the heels of a dispute between Totto and the administration over votes
Embattled TV news reporter Nestor Garcia says he has resigned his position at KHON2 News.
Garcia, who recently agreed to pay thousands of dollars in fines related to ethics violations from his service as a Honolulu City Council member before he joined KHON last year, tells Civil Beat he resigned from the station, effective as of Friday.
“I thought it was best for all that I move on,” he said.
KHON news director Lori Silva did not return a message seeking comment.
On Saturday morning, Garcia’s portrait and a written bio had been taken down from the station’s website.
Two weeks ago, Garcia agreed to pay $8,100 in fines for 72 incidents in which he accepted golf games, free meals and others gifts from lobbyists and failed to disclose them before voting on matters related to those lobbyists. Most of the lobbying related to companies involved with the controversial $6 billion Honolulu rail project.
Garcia was on the City Council from 2003 until 2013. From 1994 until 2002 he was a state legislator. In 2006, he finished eighth out of a field of 10 in the Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District seat.
While on the Council Garcia also worked as executive director of the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce, an area that has a huge interest in the rail project, which is being built from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Garcia had worked as a news reporter at KHON
An ongoing ethics probe that so far has resulted in fines for two former Honolulu City Council members accused of accepting illegal gifts from lobbyists has raised serious questions about corruption in local government, particularly as it relates to a controversial $6 billion commuter rail project.
Despite that, little attention has been paid to those who were doing the courting.
Nestor Garcia, a KHON news reporter who served on the council from 2003 to 2013, agreed last week to pay an $8,100 fine after the Honolulu Ethics Commission found evidence that he accepted free meals and golf from lobbyists in amounts that exceeded city guidelines and failed to report conflicts of interest while voting on measures related to the rail project and other issues associated with it.
His settlement stems from a larger investigation that has already forced state Rep. Romy Cachola to pay a $50,000 fine for similar conduct while he was on the council.
The commission is still looking into allegations that other current and former council members, including Ann Kobayashi, Ikaika Anderson, Donovan Dela Cruz and Todd Apo, also received inappropriate gifts from lobbyists. Dela Cruz is currently a state senator and Apo is the director of public affairs at the Disney Aulani resort in Ko Olina. Kobayashi and Anderson are sitting council members.
But amid the growing scandal — which includes debate about whether key rail votes should be invalidated —
Any colloquial discussion of ethical conduct and government employees should commence with rats.
To rat on another is to inform on or betray. It used to be to do so required no more effort than dropping a dime. For you youngsters under 40, the reference to a coin may be difficult to comprehend. These days with credit, debit and prepaid phone cards, the use of a coin is an archaic way to make a phone call and a dime is insufficient for either a call or a cup of coffee.
In the hallowed place where I spent most of my life, the last century, the phrase “dropping a dime” was criminal underworld slang describing surreptitiously providing information to the police. The expression dates from a time when a public pay telephone call cost 10 cents and a dime was dropped into the slot. This facilitated a call to the police or other authority by an anonymous informer without fear of the call being traced.
In this century the dime-dropper has morphed into the wondrous whistleblower. Nowadays a person who truthfully blows the whistle by revealing corruption or wrongdoing in government is often admired and legally protected. So I want to claim some small level of recognition as a whistleblower on a pre-eminent role model of ethical behavior, former City Council member
HART officials say he had no involvement in bid process either before or after he left CH2M Hill for the city.
Gifts valued at nearly $700,000 were approved by the City Council for city government agencies.
Questions arise about who should be giving out ethics advice to city employees.
The continuing spat raises questions about transparency and ethics enforcement.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s proposed budget bolsters Honolulu Ethics Commission staffing by 25 percent.
Council Chair Martin says he’s already clarified who’s responsible for scrutinizing council’s expenses.
The vacancy makes it more difficult for the government watchdog to do its job.
Procurement in spotlight with Fire-EMS merger controversy.
Under Honolulu procurement policy, individual scoresheets should be summed.