Caldwell’s budget seeks to increase funding for the Honolulu Ethics Commission by about $80,000. That isn’t a lot of money in a $2 billion spending plan, but if approved would be enough for the three-person agency to hire another investigator.
The allocation, however, is still a far cry from doubling the commission’s $280,000 budget, a request the agency’s top administrator asked for in January to “fight against public corruption.”
“Certainly what we’ve been allocated by the administration and what the City Council is reviewing is a big step in the right direction,” Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto said of the $80,000 bump.
Totto said there’s been a “bottleneck” because there are too few investigators to do preliminary work and see if evidence warrants moving forward.
Totto has two employees to help him oversee a city workforce of 8,500. He has an attorney who can investigate cases and a legal clerk. The three of them work in a cramped office space in the Standard Financial Plaza on King Street. File cabinets are full and cardboard boxes are stacked to the ceiling.
The workload is heavy. The Ethics Commission has seen its cases increase by 233 percent in the past five years. In Fiscal Year 2012, the commission investigated 70 complaints. This year that number is expected to eclipse 100 with even more cases — 165 — anticipated in 2014.
Those investigations are in addition to the hundreds of requests for advice the ethics commission receives each year.
A new training program is one reason for the expected increase in complaints, Totto said. All city employees, from street sweepers to secretaries, now must take part in mandatory ethics training. In the past, only elected officials, cabinet members, managers and supervisors have had been required to get training.
With more people understanding what’s right and wrong when it comes to being a government worker, Totto said he believes more people will come forward with complaints.
“It’s just a matter of trying to keep up with the demand,” Totto said. “But it is a question mark. We don’t know whether our workload will go up 3 percent or 300 percent.”
Being spread thin means potential violations of ethics law go unchecked. Commission staff can’t investigate complaints in a timely manner, they also doesn’t have time to audit the financial disclosure statements of city leaders and lobbyists to make sure there aren’t any questionable connections on impending decisions.
In his pitch for more money, Totto compared the Ethics Commission budget to the money spent to oversee administrative misconduct in just one agency, the Honolulu Police Department. The HPD’s Professional Standards Office and the Honolulu Police Commission split $1.6 million to help handle these administrative investigations, Totto said. That’s about six times the amount of Totto’s budget.
The shortage of resources isn’t unique to the city’s ethics division. The Hawaii Ethics Commission also requested a modest increase in funding to help it cover the increasing costs of doing business and maintain the status quo.
Executive Director Les Kondo said his department has the same struggles as Totto’s. There’s no time to audit financial disclosures of state employees or to keep tabs on every lobbyist. It’s hard enough, he said, keeping up with pending investigations and requests for advice.
“We don’t have a lot of extra fat we can float here and use for different things,” Kondo said. “We all have to do more with less. We try to do the best we can, but certainly like other agencies we feel the tight belt that we’re wearing. We could certainly use more money.”
The Legislature has tentatively agreed to increase funding for the state Ethics Commission.
Totto’s new funding seems secure at this point. Not only has the mayor put the money in his spending plan, but Councilmember Ann Kobayashi, who chairs the Budget Committee, has also voiced support for giving more money to ethics.
If approved by the rest of the City Council, it would be the first real increase in the Ethics Commission budget since 2010 when Totto was allowed to hire another attorney to help him investigate complaints.
“It’s very important to provide them with enough people so they can get their job done,” Kobayashi said. “Totto does a great job as an executive director and he’s been doing without for so many years.”