The Caldwell administration is refusing to make public high-level budget documents that the mayor used to set his spending priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.

These records show exactly how much money each department head — from the police chief to the managing director — asked for in 2015 along with the justification for those expenses.

But city officials won’t release the information, saying it is “pre-decisional and deliberative.”

That means taxpayers can’t see what Mayor Kirk Caldwell left on the cutting room floor. While he frequently touts his spending priorities, there’s no way of knowing which departments are left wanting.

A ‘Giant Cesspool’

City officials didn’t answer questions for this story despite multiple requests. Budget staff referred Civil Beat to the mayor’s spokesman, Jesse Broder Van Dyke, who also didn’t respond to specific questions.

The city also denied Civil Beat’s public records request seeking each agency’s budget proposals, providing only samples of a redacted ledger that has more than half of each page blacked out.

Honolulu attorney Jeff Portnoy, who specializes in public information cases, said the city could be infringing on the public’s right to know by denying release of the budget information. But it’s hard to tell at this point, he said.

He called the pre-decisional disclosure exemption a “giant cesspool” that often leads to confusion and vague explanations from government officials as to why a record should remain confidential.

“It’s probably the most used and abused because it’s so broad and undefined,” Portnoy said. “It’s in the statute, so it’s a valid reason (to deny a request). But the problem is it’s subject to the whims of the agency.”

Honolulu Hale

PF Bentley/Honolulu Civil Beat

The sign outside Honolulu Hale.

The state Office of Information Practices, which is responsible for enforcement of the state’s public records law, draws a similar conclusion.

OIP attorney Jennifer Brooks says the deliberative process exemption exists to avoid “shutting down creativity.”

She said it allows government employees to express their opinions freely about certain policy decisions without fear of having that information released to the public.

Brooks added that a case could be made that certain information — such as that related to departmental budget requests to the mayor — should be readily available to citizens.

“An agency can always choose to release the information,” she said.

When the Mayor Says No

Knowing what each city department wants provides valuable insight into how government dollars are being spent.

If the mayor grants a funding request it could highlight a priority of his administration. In Caldwell’s case, these items are detailed in the $2.1 billion budget he released on Feb. 28.

He also touts these priorities — namely roads, transit-oriented development, parks and sewers — during speeches, press conferences and other public appearances.

But there’s also a huge blind spot when it comes to what the mayor chose not to fund.

For instance, last year the Caldwell administration squared off with the Honolulu Ethics Commission’ over the agency’s budget for fiscal year 2015.

The city Ethics Commission, which had been complaining about the administration interfering in its investigations, wanted more money to combat corruption inside city hall.

Honolulu Mayor's Office

PF Bentley/Honolulu Civil Beat

The closed doors to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office.

Managing Director Ember Shinn told the commission at that time that it was unlikely that the money would be available and that it would have to justify any increase in spending that was above a budget ceiling set by the administration.

“We’ve gone through some really hard times in the city,” Shinn said. “We’re pretty much down to, in a lot of areas, bare bones. Everyone feels that they’re under-appreciated.”

The Ethics Commission eventually submitted a budget proposal — which was released publicly by the agency — that included statistics and other details that sought to justify the increase in funds.

Caldwell, who himself was the subject of an Ethics Commission investigation, did not include all the extra funds the commission sought.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto wanted about $130,000 to hire new staff and increase the pay of an investigator, but Caldwell only inserted an extra $38,500.

The State Does It

The lack of transparency in the city’s budgeting process means that similar scenarios likely will never be aired publicly unless a department head or cabinet member speaks out.

That’s not necessarily the case at the state level where officials in the Hawaii Department of Budget and Finance have been more willing to talk candidly about various agency requests.

Budget and Finance Director Kalbert Young told Civil Beat that he’s often pitched about doling out more money to state agencies, even after Gov. Neil Abercrombie submits his budget to the Legislature.

Not all of these requests make it into the spending plan, he said. But he also doesn’t see why they can’t be made public.

“I don’t have any problems with you knowing what was requested,” Young said.

He pointed to the Department of Public Safety’s request for more sheriffs to staff security checkpoints at state courthouses on neighbor islands. There just wasn’t enough money so some of the positions were snipped, he said.

“We probably exclude a lot more requests than we put in the budget,” Young said. “It’s not because the requests are irrational or even unwarranted. It’s just a question of whether we can afford it.”

Contact Nick Grube via email at nick@civilbeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @NickGrube.

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