Ethics flap plays out before city commission

By Catherine Cruz
Published On: Jan 06 2014 06:17:00 PM HST

Top city officials meet to address the tension between the administration and the head of the commission over information requests.

HONOLULU -

"Corruption has no place in government," said Corporation Counsel Donna Leong.

That is according to the city's top lawyer.  It is what drives the City Ethics Commission and its executive director Chuck Totto.

But it does not explain Totto’s frustration over months of delays with getting information. It is access Totto needs to follow up on after the growing number of ethics complaints.

Click here to watch Catherine Cruz' report.

Totto doesn’t understand why mayor Kirk Caldwell's administration has been slow to respond.

"Staff's position is, as long as we have legal authority and the information we request is reasonable relevant to alleged misconduct, that we are allowed to look at electronic files," said Totto.

The city Human Resources director has refused to turn over the info citing privacy concerns.

Kubo noted there have been cases where emails included labor contract information which is considered confidential.

"I need to protect the privacy rights of employees and I can't have them witch-hunting on employees on everything under the sun. They should tell me what we are looking for and we will provide it," said Carolee Kubo.

But some commissioners are uncomfortable with having city managers screen the information limiting what the commission can get access to.

Totto fears in the process of foot dragging, possible evidence located in emails have already been destroyed.

City transporation manager Mike Formby defended his department's efforts to investigate complaints involving Oahu Transit Services, the management company that operates The Bus.

"This is how much time we spent. We thoroughly investigated it we met, we discussed it," said Formby.

Formby said the probe didn’t uncover anything actionable, but he said it did prompt the department and OTS to begin crafting an ethics standard and a conflict of interest policy as well as a formal process to investigate complaints.

The commission is questioning why the corporation counsel is offering ethics advice to city workers which could conflict with the commission--a potentially confusing situation.

But the city's top lawyer tried to assure members it is in keeping with the city charter and is not politically motivated.

"Not to do what the mayor wants or what the council wants it is to do what is the best interest of the people of the city and county of Honolulu. The law is the law," said Leong.

Some members disagree that it is the best tact to take.

"It seems like the cleanest route is to provide staffing rather than to take it upon yourself to be supportive in a way that wasn't asked for. That's the trouble that I am having," said Rachel Wong, vice-chair of the commission.

The administration has said no to a budget request for additional ethics commission staff.

One thing that did get cleared up is that the city’s Information Technology office is willing to put a hold on purging emails in the system so they don’t get destroyed if there is a dispute over whether they should be turned over.

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