UPDATED 4/4/2011 3:22 p.m.

Honolulu City Council Chairman Nestor Garcia is defending his integrity after a TV station revealed a possible conflict of interest.

“Don’t tell me I’m a whore and getting paid off and I’ll do anything for rail,” Garcia told Civil Beat Monday. Garcia was referring to his role on the City Council and his $60,000-a-year job as executive director of the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce, first reported last week by KITV’s Daryl Huff.

The Chamber of Commerce advocates for the city’s rail project, which will begin in the west Oahu community. The Council has oversight of the project, and has authorized its progress.

Garcia, 54, once chairman of the Transportation Committee, took the chamber on as a client in 2009. As City Council chairman, also considered a part-time job, he makes about $56,000. He says he understands why people are asking questions now. He said he opted to disclose the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce as a client even though the city’s Ethics Commission’s executive director1 told him it wasn’t necessary.

“(Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck) Totto came to me and says, ‘You know you’re not required under the law to disclose this.'”

“I can’t speak to anything, specifically, regarding Council member Garcia right now,” Totto told Civil Beat on Monday. “That would be inappropriate for me to do that.”

Getting the Gig

Garcia said the newly formed Kapolei Chamber of Commerce recruited him as its first executive director.

“A bunch of businesses said, ‘Hey, we’d like to form an organization out here,'” Garcia said. “A bunch of these guys got together and people said, ‘Would you consider becoming executive director?'”

Garcia said he took the job as a consulting position, and the chamber agreed to pay him “a flat rate of $5,000 per month” to oversee meetings, take minutes, organize networking mixers and do other “grunt work” like a recent overhaul of the chamber’s website. The chamber also has a president, which is an unpaid position.

“I kind of preside over the thing, even though we have a president,” Garcia said. “I wanted to take the chamber to the next level … I don’t lobby because I’m not supposed to lobby. The president does that.”

Garcia said he knows that, when he was hired, there was talk among chamber members about a potential conflict of interest, but he wasn’t privy to those discussions. He said by the time he took the job it was a natural fit because he already knew he was a strong supporter of the city’s $5.5 billion rail project.

“I want people to know I’m not voting because someone paid me off,” Garcia said. “You sit as the chairman with a project of the scope and size of rail, and you have to be careful about how you proceed with the city’s business. I am going to have to bear the slings and arrows. You’re a public servant. You have to be an open book.”

The Kapolei contract is not listed in his January 2010 financial disclosure filing. It’s listed on a disclosure form filed on March 24, the day KITV reported its story. Asked why he hadn’t revealed his role with the chamber earlier, Garcia said he knew it would come up eventually. It seemed like common knowledge in Kapolei circles, he said.

“People knew where I stood always, even before there was a chamber,” he said. “Plus, it wasn’t required.”

“I would have brought it up sooner if someone had questioned me,” he said. “It was never something I thought I was going to hide forever. I think we would have had the same discussion if I would have disclosed it earlier.”

Carlisle Says He’s ‘Comfortable’ With Garcia’s Job

Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle said he’s “fascinated” by public scrutiny of perceived conflicts.

“You know, I’m fascinated by it because it’s such a recent thing,” Carlisle told Civil Beat on Monday. “It’s a transition to the period where there’s this endless microscope that everybody looks at. I would strongly suggest that if you look at the private sector, too, there are just as many apparent conflicts.”

“It’s a good thing if it doesn’t get absurd,” the mayor said. “I haven’t seen anything to suggest it has, but there are just things that happen to you that have nothing to do with conflicts of interest, but people just being nice to you. People giving you a flower or buying you a drink or something. The day we get down to looking at that as peddling influence seems to me that we’re missing the bigger picture. I would hope it’s reserved for those things that really do count and not just rules for the sake of making rules.”

Carlisle, who is also a strong rail supporter, said he believes that Garcia’s job with the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce is appropriate.

“I’m comfortable that he can do that,” Carlisle said. “His support of the rail happened long before he was involved in this. It makes sense for him to be an avid supporter of rail. Do I think this is influencing the way he thinks about what he’s doing? I can’t imagine him doing anything different than the way he’s already doing it. But other people will think otherwise simply because it does have an appearance that people could be concerned about.”

Garcia Cites Sign of Independence

Garcia says proof that his policy decisions are independent of his paycheck played out on the City Council floor earlier this month. Garcia supported Council Vice Chair Breene Harimoto in tabling a measure that would enable the city to seek federal funding for the rail project.

Harimoto later revealed to Civil Beat that he was having serious and growing “concerns” about what he saw as a lack of transparency from the administration on rail.

Delaying action on the funding measure was a way for the City Council to get the administration’s attention.

“People say I’m just for rail because I’m getting paid off,” Garcia said. “But those people don’t understand what I just did. If I was being paid off, would I have done that? Would we have tabled that grant? That’s $30 million for rail.”

Garcia Wants Stricter Disclosure Rules

Now Garcia said he’s going to seek stricter laws about what City Council members should be required to disclose. He says he believes he should have been required to disclose the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce as a client, rather than merely saying he has a consulting business.

“I want the disclosures of all nine of us,” Garcia said. “I voluntarily did it. Make it mandatory. Maybe the attorneys are going to fight it, but let’s talk about it.”

For now, Garcia says he’s taking the criticism as part of the job.

“I have no plans to leave this office or the chairmanship, so let me be blunt,” Garcia said. “The matter that we tabled, that’s the next vote. So what is Nestor Garcia going to do? Ethically, I’m supposed to disclose and legally I’m supposed to vote. So I will vote. And until someone changes the law or tells me otherwise, that’s what I’m going to do.”

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