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Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto doesn’t want to lose control of his agency, but he says that’s becoming a real possibility under the increasingly heavy thumb of the Caldwell administration.
During a commission meeting Monday, Totto criticized recent moves by Honolulu’s Corporation Counsel to subvert his ability to enforce ethics laws by manipulating his budget and challenging his authority to make decisions.
In particular, he says city attorneys are trying to wrest financial control away from the commission, an autonomous board of volunteers that, among other things, approves Totto’s salary and recommends discipline for misconduct.
The Corporation Counsel is only supposed to be administratively tied to the commission, not an overseer of the budget. Without independence, Totto said, the commission’s credibility could be compromised.
“Corporation Counsel could use budget management to undermine operations of the commission,” Totto said. “This is of particular concern because Corporation Counsel is not only an agent of the administration, it also has inherent conflicts of interest with the commission.”
Totto is asking the administration to increase his budget by about $130,000, a more than 35 percent increase. Last year, Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the Honolulu City Council increased his budget for Fiscal Year 2014 from $280,000 to $360,000.
But now the city is expecting a budget gap of nearly $156 million, and the administration has imposed a ceiling on most departmental expenses outside of mandatory salary increases that come as the result of collective bargaining.
For the ethics commission, this means a cap of about $370,000, according to Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, who cited the figure during Monday’s meeting in which she defended the budgetary tactic.
“There is a budget ceiling that has been assigned to each department,” Leong said. “This whole budget process is a give and take. You can’t always get what you want.”
Leong’s answer didn’t seem to satisfy ethics commissioners, who are mainly concerned with how the administration is imposing limits on their budget and the possible impacts that could have.
“The power to control a budget is the power to control an entity,” Commissioner Michael Lilly said.
Totto also voiced opposition to other actions the administration has taken against the commission in the past couple months, including an audit of a recent contract to hire an outside ethics investigator and threats to withhold money unless internal communications were shared with attorneys.
He said he was also told by they city’s attorneys that they could provide their own ethics advice to employees even if it conflicted with the commission’s opinions.
“This is problematic,” Totto said, “because Corporation Counsel could interject itself into any issues before the commission.”
The spat between Totto and the city’s attorneys comes shortly after the Ethics Commission released an opinion that found Caldwell had unknowingly violated city gift laws when his mayoral transition team accepted tens of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and contractors who had business in front of the city.
The mayor was cleared of any wrongdoing, though, because the commission was unable to find any evidence showing he knew who the donors were. But the fact that there was an investigation at all seemed to rankle Caldwell. In a statement the mayor said he was “surprised” there was an investigation in the first place.
It’s unclear whether this has anything to do with the current budgetary disagreement between the administration and the commission, but Totto did say his agency has never received this much scrutiny under previous leadership.