City Ethics Commission Director Chuck Totto took his case for more money directly to the Honolulu City Council Budget Committee on Monday. He’s been fighting with Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the administration for months over what he sees as an effort to undermine his office by cutting short its cash flow.

“I don’t know how many people have come into our offices . . . literally crying because they are so distraught with what’s going on in a department,” Totto told council members.

He described a rising caseload of ethics complaints and investigations, all managed by his small office of four people and a current budget of $361,843.

Totto wants a budget increase of more than $100,000 so that he can hire an additional attorney, a legal clerk, rent more office space and boost the salary of an investigator.

But Caldwell’s recently released budget, which is now before the City Council for debate and approval, only included an extra $38,500 for the Ethics Commission. The funding provides for a $10,500 salary increase for the investigator and another legal clerk who would be paid a salary of $28,000.

Totto called the budget increase “decimal dust.”

The mayor’s office, which is wrestling with a $156 million budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year and has put ceilings on departmental budgets, did not return calls for comment.

Over the past four years, complaints before the Ethics Commission have increased by 41 percent and complaint investigations by 30 percent, according to Totto. Commission advisory opinions have jumped by 25 percent.

Meanwhile, the commission plans to train 7,800 city employees this year in things such as procurement law and illegal gifts.

Many of the complaints relate to preferential treatment within departments, procurement law, illegal or unethical gift giving and the misuse of city resources.

And with the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit about to start doling out $2 billion in bond money for rail contracts, Totto predicts the commission’s workload will likely increase even more.

“That much money attracts an awful lot of interest,” Totto told Civil Beat. “And when you have that much interest, you are going to attract people who are going to want to end-run the process.”

The spat between the mayor and Totto over the commission’s budget, as well as what Totto has described as heavy-handed tactics by the Caldwell administration to usurp the commission’s independence, has played out for months.

In November, Totto complained that the Department of Corporation Counsel, to which the Ethics Commission is administratively attached, was subverting his ability to enforce ethics laws by manipulating his budget and impinging on his authority to make decisions.

Usually, the Corporation Counsel briefs the City Council on the department’s budget, including that of the Ethics Commission. But this year, Corporation Counsel Donna Leong left the Ethics Commission out of her presentation before the City Council. She noted that Totto wanted to discuss that with the council himself.

Totto told Civil Beat that it’s maybe the second or third time in his 14 years as the top administrator of the Ethics Commission that he has spoken up before the City Council on his budget needs.

The Corporation Counsel “felt that they had the authority to dictate what our resources will be,” he said. “The issue for us is that it impinges on our independence.”

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