Of the many things to say regarding last week’s unfortunate adoption of a new media policy by members of the Honolulu Ethics Commission, chief among them is this:

What were they thinking?

The seven-member panel approved a new policy effectively muzzling the commission’s executive director, Chuck Totto, requiring him to seek approval before discussing decisions or opinions with the press. The commission would have the public believe this is a desirable way to promote public understanding of its sometimes complex and nuanced decisions.

But no one’s buying it.

As Civil Beat’s Nick Grube reported, the commission only became interested in a new policy after Executive Director Chuck Totto spoke out on several matters involving Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. The three commissioners most involved in creating the policy — including its author, Commissioner Riki May Amano — are all former judges who were appointed by Caldwell to the commission over the past year. Thus, the guidelines not only deal a blow to the commission’s own credibility, but cast a pall over the Caldwell administration, as well.

Chuck Totto, Honolulu Ethics Commission

Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto must now work under a new media policy that sharply curtails his ability to speak with news media.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Moreover, the guidelines were only approved after Totto reportedly made comments to media following the commission’s action on 72 ethics violations by former Honolulu City Councilman Nestor Garcia that resulted in an $8,100 fine.

Totto suggested that because Garcia didn’t disclose conflicts of interest before casting votes, those votes could be invalidated. He didn’t say that the Ethics Commission itself had nullified those votes — which, by the way, were largely involving the Honolulu rail project, a big issue for Kirk Caldwell and one that has recently been pounded by critics’ financial questions.

But that was the interpretation given his comments by Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, chief legal advisor to Caldwell. Shortly after Totto’s comments made print, she sent a breathless letter to the commission claiming the news coverage underscored “the importance of the adoption of the Commission’s proposed Media Policy.”

In light of that and Totto’s previous conflicts with the Caldwell administration, it’s difficult to see the most outrageous part of the (awkwardly worded) new policy as anything other than retaliatory:

“Under no circumstances shall any media communication engage in media activities to air concerns/grievances regarding the operations of the Ethics Commission, or interpret or comment on any decisions or advisory opinions.”

The policy goes on to require that Totto and his staff work with the corporation counsel’s office and with the commission itself, if time permits, on any media communications. The cumbersome new mandate will unavoidably retard meaningful contributions to news coverage and public insight into commission decisions, as illustrated in Grube’s coverage of the matter: Totto turned away his request for comment following the meeting, saying in light of the policy, he didn’t have the authority to speak.

Even more troubling, though, is the inherent conflict of interest that is introduced by requiring Totto’s collaboration with the corporation counsel on media matters. Any attorney’s responsibility is to represent its clients as vigorously and effectively as possible. On any given matter, that representation might not be enhanced by candid conversations with reporters.

The policy clouds ethics commission actions rather than providing greater transparency and does a disservice to the public whose interests the commission was created to protect.

It’s easy to imagine circumstances where attorney Leong might not wish for the media to focus on certain matters where Caldwell or other city official clients are involved. But in light of the commission’s “responsibility to improve and maintain public confidence in government officials and employees,” Totto might be right to discuss with reporters various intricacies of commission rulings or advisory opinions that might be inconvenient for Leong or her clients.

The new policy prohibits Totto from doing that. It clouds Ethics Commission actions rather than providing greater transparency and does a disservice to the public whose interests the commission was created to protect.

Of all the government offices that taxpayers ought to be able to believe in, Ethics Commissions hold a special place as agencies that ought to be reliably above the appearance of political interference. We were reminded of the importance of this recently when House Speaker Joe Souki inserted himself into the performance evaluation of state ethics commission Executive Director Les Kondo.

The new city media policy has every appearance that it was created for purely political purposes, to rein in a strong voice for good government whose candor sometimes makes other leaders uncomfortable.

The timing is interesting, too. As Ian Lind recently reported in his blog, the Honolulu Ethics Commission has 17 open and interrelated investigations involving two departments, seven subjects and 45 to 50 witnesses. The investigations have absorbed hundreds of hours of investigative work over the last 10 months.

And all this as Mayor Caldwell ramps up his re-election campaign. Negative publicity on ethical problems on his watch would not play well with the voters.

Is protecting individual officials more important than ensuring government integrity? That’s a perception that the Ethics Commission, as well as every employee of the City and County of Honolulu including Mayor Caldwell, should take every reasonable step to avoid.

The Ethics Commission needs to scrap last week’s policy action and take an important step toward restoring the faith in its work that its new media policy so sadly undermines.

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