The Honolulu Ethics Commission is putting the final touches on a draft letter to Mayor Kirk Caldwell that asks him to reaffirm the commission’s independence from the city’s corporation counsel.

The letter, which Civil Beat first reported about on Tuesday, is the latest development in an ongoing tug-of-war between the Caldwell administration and the commission, the autonomous body in charge of rooting out government corruption at the city level.

The commission contends that the members of the Caldwell administration, particularly the corporation counsel, have increasingly overstepped their authority by attempting to micromanage its budget and staffing. The commission is attached to the corporation counsel for administrative purposes only.

The most recent conflict revolves around an attempt by the commission to purchase a $600 GPS device to track city employees who were suspected of getting paid for work they didn’t actually do. The commission estimated that the alleged fraud was costing city taxpayers $250,000 annually.

But Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, commissioners said, undermined the initiative after taking five weeks to review its legality despite an earlier opinion that determined the practice to be legal. In a memo, Leong approved the device but set various conditions that commissioners described as unclear and “completely off-base.”

Michael Lilly

Michael Lilly, Honolulu Ethics Commission, in December 2013.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The delay effectively compromised the investigation, commissioners said. Meanwhile, the commission’s Executive Director Chuck Totto said the memo “raises many more questions than it answers.”

At a meeting Thursday, Totto and Vice Chair Katy Chen, who’s authoring the letter, agreed to update the document with final edits to clean up language and clarify its intent. They plan on issuing the letter to Caldwell — along with a deadline for his response — once it’s finalized. (The original draft can be found here.)

Commissioners on Thursday expressed their frustration with Leong’s response to the GPS request — particularly Michael Lilly, who said he was “appalled” by her memo.

“We don’t work for the corporation counsel,” he said. “That would mean we’re working for someone we could potentially investigate.”

Deputy Corporation Counsel Diane Kawauchi, who attended Thursday’s meeting on behalf of Leong, said the office has “listened carefully” to the commission’s concerns and will try and address them “as quickly as possible.”

“I do not feel in my heart that it is in any way seeking to be negligent and inattentive to your requests,” she said, referring to Leong’s memo.

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