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Ian Lind • Online daily from Kaaawa, Hawaii

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Honolulu Ethics Commission’s media policy gets no support

July 5th, 2015 · No Comments

Since the Honolulu Ethics Commission voted to ignore concerns raised by its staff and instead adopt a new and restrictive policy for communicating with the public and the news media, the reactions have been uniformly negative.

Here’s a brief recap.

There have been two posts here concerning the new policy (June 25: “A two-prong attack on ethics“, and June 26: “City Ethics Commission rejected staff concerns about restrictive media policy“).

My conclusion: “…these restrictions are bad policy, bad for ethics, bad for the public.”

Some strong words from a Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial, June 29: “Ethics panel’s media policy must be voided

Don’t be fooled. The Honolulu Ethics Commission’s restrictive new media policy is not designed to foster more accurate reporting, or even to rein in a single executive director. It exists to control the flow of public information, and in doing so, diminishes a fundamental principle of a democratic society and reflects a profound disregard for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

That a commission charged with advancing ethical conduct in city government would act so ignobly against the public trust is all the more outrageous. It is not enough to register mere outrage at this misguided policy change, which was approved over the objection of the board chairwoman, who voted against it. This decision to effectively muzzle commission members, a long-time executive director and other staff members must be overturned.

Hawaii News Now editorial by Rick Blangiardi: “Local Connection: Ethics Commission

In a very disturbing decision the commission voted to muzzle executive director Chuck Totto…forcing him to consult with commissioners before he can respond to media questions.

The reason seems to be Totto’s direct answers to Hawaii News Now… when we asked whether council members’ votes on the rail project could be nullified due to secret gifts from lobbyists.

Chuck Totto is an attorney and highly qualified to educate the public on these matters. Before being city ethics director he was the state consumer advocate.

Most of the part-time commissioners who voted to muzzle him are former judges. Judges may know about law, but spend their careers isolated and insulated from media contact. They don’t know anything about public communication.

I can’t think of anyone worse to be advising the ethics director about what he can and cannot say to the public.

This is a bad policy made under pressure from special interests the very thing our ethics laws are supposed to prevent.

It should be reversed and Chuck Totto reassured that not only can he work with the media…he should be encouraged to do so.

Civil Beat Editorial Board, June 30: “Honolulu Ethics Commission Needs to Scrap Its New Anti-Media Policy.”

The new city media policy has every appearance that it was created for purely political purposes, to rein in a strong voice for good government whose candor sometimes makes other leaders uncomfortable.

The timing is interesting, too. As Ian Lind recently reported in his blog, the Honolulu Ethics Commission has 17 open and interrelated investigations involving two departments, seven subjects and 45 to 50 witnesses. The investigations have absorbed hundreds of hours of investigative work over the last 10 months.

And all this as Mayor Caldwell ramps up his re-election campaign. Negative publicity on ethical problems on his watch would not play well with the voters.

Is protecting individual officials more important than ensuring government integrity? That’s a perception that the Ethics Commission, as well as every employee of the City and County of Honolulu including Mayor Caldwell, should take every reasonable step to avoid.

According to a report by Keoki Kerr at Hawaii News Now, the media policy is a result of a disagreement over how to answer questions concerning the possibility that undisclosed conflicts of City Council members could void key votes authorizing the Honolulu rail project (“Ethics Commission clamps down on director who says rail votes might be thrown out“).

After former Councilman Romy Cachola agreed to pay a $50,000 ethics fine last September for accepting fancy meals and golf from lobbyists including rail transit supporters and then failing to disclose the conflict, Totto told Hawaii News Now he was looking into whether Cachola’s votes in favor of rail should be disqualified.

“Whether there are any unlawful gifts that required disclosure and the disclosure did not occur, making council members’ votes null and void,” Totto told HNN last Sept. 29.

Comments like that to reporters got Totto in hot water with his bosses on the Ethics Commission, who Wednesday questioned him why he answered reporters’ questions on the subject.

“Because the commission has said in the past that the vote is nullified if there was a failure to make the disclosure of conflict,” Totto told commissioners at their monthly meeting Wednesday.

Ethics Commissioner Riki May Amano, a retired state judge, said, “But the issue’s not before us.”

And ethics Commissioner Victoria Marks, another retired state judge, said, “The issue about the vote is not before this commission.”

Totto then responded: “So you’re suggesting then that I should say that the commission has done this in the past?”

“If there’s no public disclosure, then the individual’s vote is, under Hawaii law, appellate law, void,” Totto said, noting Commission staff made those findings in three recent cases.

So what is the law regarding the possibility throwing out city council votes due to members’ conflicts?

Well, there’s Article XI of the City Charter, which contains the basic regarding prohibited conflicts of interest, and requirements for disclosure of potential conflicts.

The section on penalties does not mention voiding votes due to undisclosed conflicts or other violations of the ethics law.

The failure to comply with or any violation of the standards of conduct established by this article of the charter or by ordinance shall be grounds for impeachment of elected officers and for the removal from office or from employment of all other officers and employees. The appointing authority may, upon the recommendation of the ethics commission, reprimand, put on probation, demote, suspend or discharge an employee found to have violated the standards of conduct established by this article of the charter or by ordinance. The ethics commission may also impose civil fines established by ordinance for violations of the standards of conduct committed by elected and appointed officers and employees of the city with significant discretionary or fiscal power as determined by ordinance.

The City Charter further confuses the matter by also providing that “All council members shall have the right to vote in the council at all times….” (Section 3-107).

But a 1983 decision by the Intermediate Court of Appeals involving a city council vote recognized that the charter requirement that conflicts be disclosed before voting implicitly disqualifies a council member who is in violation of the requirement from voting (Hui Malama Aina O Ko’olau v. Pacarro).

However, the vote is not automatically nullified.

Fong’s failure to strictly comply with the disclosure requirements and his vote in favor of the extension of the time limit does not ipso facto invalidate the extension.

Although Charter section 11-103 implicitly disqualified Fong from voting until he made the required disclosure, the Hawaii Supreme Court has held that “where the required majority exists without the vote of the disqualified member, his participation in the deliberation and in the voting will not invalidate the result.” Waikiki Resort Hotel, 63 Haw. at 248, 624 P.2d at 1371; citing Singewald v. Minneapolis Gas Co., 274 Minn. 556, 142 N.W.2d 739 (1966); Anderson v. City of Parsons, 209 Kan. 337, 496 P.2d 1333 (1972). Since only five votes were necessary and Fong’s was one of six votes, the extension of time until December 31, 1981 was not invalidated by Fong’s vote.

In the case of the rail votes, though, it appears that the majority favoring rail in earlier votes could disappear if the commission extends its findings of undisclosed conflicts to additional council members.

The Honolulu Ethics Commission previously took a slightly different approach. Guidelines on abstention from voting issued by the commission in 1993 contain this advice to council members on whether they can vote on matters in which they may have a conflict:

You will note that the section quoted above is silent on the matter of voting by the person holding a conflict of interest. However, the Charter elsewhere (Section 3-107) does specifically state that “[a]ll councilmembers shall have the right to vote in the council at all times.”

Nevertheless, the Standards of Conduct address the subject of fair and equal treatment. Section 11-104, RCH, provides as follows:

Elected or appointed officers or employees shall not use their official positions to secure or grant special consideration, treatment, advantage, privilege or exemption to themselves or any person beyond that which is available to every other person.

The Ethics Commission believes that Section 11-104 of the Charter has the result of prohibiting voting on a matter in which any City officer or employee has a business or financial interest, although he or she still would be required to file a disclosure statement, as required by Section 11-103, RCH.

The Ethics Commission acknowledges that its interpretation of the Standards of Conduct cannot overrule councilmembers’ right to vote as guaranteed in Section 3-107, RCH. However, the Commission encourages Councilmembers to abstain voluntarily from voting on matters in which they have direct or indirect business or financial interests.

In the end, it appears that Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto was certainly correct in telling reporters that council votes could be nullified by findings that the ethics laws were violated by council members who voted in the majority, based on prior court decisions and commission opinions.

Was that issue before the commission at this time? Only implicitly. But reporters questions were justified, as were Totto’s answers. Could he have ducked the questions? Sure. But that wouldn’t have been good for the commission, the reporters, or the public.

→ No CommentsTags: Ethics · Politics

4th of July goes to the dogs

July 4th, 2015 · 2 Comments

I don’t think that I’ll even try to do anything serious on this 4th of July.

Instead, how about a fresh look at some of our Kaaawa Dogs? Keep in mind that we live in a feline household. No dogs here. But we buy those big boxes of Costco dog biscuits, as well as warehouse-size cartons of other dog treats for smaller dogs. Yup. Different treats for the big dogs and small dogs. Then we go on our daily walk. Over time, we have made many, many dog friends. We’re several generations along in our relationships with the dogs at a few houses. And we are still meeting new dogs.

Waiting for her toyMs. Eva is one of the newbies. We’ve been running into her at least a couple of times a week recently. Isn’t she gorgeous?

But she is totally fixated on her toy, whether it’s a ball, or a stick, or a coconut. Toy fills her entire consciousness. Dog biscuit? Don’t bother. Throw toy. Throw toy. Repeat.

Apparently her latest game is to toss the ball back at the person. Instead of catching it in her mouth, she opens wide and lets the ball bounce off of her teeth back in the direction it came from. She seems pleased with herself when it’s caught by her person.

Are all dogs capable of this kind of intense focus? I’ll let you more experienced dog people chime in here.

Anyway, while you’re enjoying your holiday weekend, check out today’s Kaaawa morning dogs. By my count, there are 27 in this batch.

–> See all 27 of today’s Kaaawa dogs!

→ 2 CommentsTags: Dogs · Photographs

Feline Friday: On a mission

July 3rd, 2015 · 2 Comments

Kili and RomeoIt’s Friday, July 3. A holiday in advance of the July 4 holiday. I started the day without a single new cat photo since last Friday’s batch. I chased cats for a while, but today’s pickings are still pretty thin.

I like this photo of Ms. Kili and Mr. Romeo. It reminds me of a scene out of the Blues Brothers, with some of that “we’re on a Mission from God” swagger, although I wish it were technically better. It was a little dark in the kitchen when they turned my way, and the camera couldn’t quite cope. But you get the idea.

We’ve had a new problem when I let the cats out for their short bit of morning freedom. Romeo is coming back just fine, a big change in his habits. But Duke has been disappearing for hours and runs away if I try to round him up. He tends to just hang around right under the house, or in some ferns under our back deck, but he has actively avoided coming in several times this week. As a result, he didn’t get to be among the “out” group this morning. I’m not quite sure how this gets worked out. The working solution is that he doesn’t get to go out unless one of us is going to be home in the event he dances just out of reach. When he gets hungry, or scared, he’s back at the door desperate to get inside.

I’ve also been trying to tell them about the big move ahead. I know it’s more for my benefit than theirs, but talking it through will hopefully help.

–> Enough blather. Click here to see the rest of today’s Friday Felines!

→ 2 CommentsTags: Cats · Photographs

Throwback Thursday: Threesome from a 1956 family trip to the island of Hawaii

July 2nd, 2015 · 1 Comment

I think these three photos all date from the same extended trip to the Big Island in 1956. I scanned these from two contact sheets made of the 35mm negatives found in a manila envelope marked “1956”, but I’m not certain they all were together originally. The scans from the tiny prints aren’t the best quality, but actually turned out surprisingly good.

In the top photo, I’m posing with my mother up at the volcano, up close and personal with Halemaumau.

The photo in the middle was taken during a day-long charter fishing trip off the Kona coast. You can see that I apparently wasn’t much into fishing, and I don’t recall anything about fish being caught (although one other photo in the series shows a few small fish being displayed).

And I think the bottom photo was taken at the vacation house we stayed in for a week or so in Kona. The house was made available by May (Bradley) Cook, who had been a close friend of my mother’s at Kamehameha School for Girls when they were boarding students there around 1930. May had married Thomas “Lofty” Cook, who was on the county Board of Supervisors at this time, and a few years later served a term as chairman, the equivalent of mayor.

As a vacation house, this was a great spot. I remember watching the mongooses play around the garbage pile in the yard, and being amazed at the night blooming plants on the rock wall that surrounded the house. Across the street was a small beach where we would swim, often joined by turtles. At that time, Kona was a pretty lazy, laid back place to vacation.

Click on any of the photos to see a larger version.

1956

1956

1956

→ 1 CommentTags: History · Photographs · Vintage Hawaii

Another quick meal (with photo)

July 1st, 2015 · 6 Comments

We were coming home late a few days ago and stopped off to shop with an eye towards something quick and easy that would also use lots of what we already had on hand at home.

I ended up grabbing some ground turkey, and here’s what emerged.

We ended up with a turkey patty and brown rice. They were served with onions, mushrooms, sweet peppers, and garlic sautéed until the onions were browned, along with side of cooked spinach, onion, and garlic. Then Meda added a plate of sliced tomatoes, carrots, olives, and a small avocado.

Oh, did I mention a bottle of red wine, in this case I think it was a Rosemont Shiraz.

Easy and yummy.

Lots of veggies

→ 6 CommentsTags: Food · Photographs