The Honolulu Ethics Commission approved a new media policy Wednesday that effectively muzzles Executive Director Chuck Totto, who has long been an outspoken voice for good government.

According to the rules, Totto and his staff cannot “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.”

Totto must also get approval from Ethics Commission Chairwoman Katy Chen or Vice Chairman Michael Lilly before talking to the press.

Chen was the only commissioner who voted against the policy. Lilly, a former Hawaii attorney general, was not at Wednesday’s meeting.

Chuck Totto, Honolulu Ethics Commission

Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto has to be careful about what he says now that commissioners have adopted a new restrictive media policy.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The policy has been in the works for some time and was written by new Ethics Commissioner Riki May Amano, a retired judge who was appointed by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

Amano is one of three commissioners appointed by Caldwell in the past year. The other two include Allene Suemori and Victoria Marks, who are also former judges.

The Caldwell administration has had a fractious relationship with Totto over budget cuts and the commission’s investigation into contributors to a fund to pay for Caldwell’s inaugural luau. Totto and his staff also have clashed with Caldwell over whether the mayor and his staff have stonewalled ethic investigations of city officials.

The new policy comes on the heels of a dispute between Totto and the administration over votes cast by former City Council members Romy Cachola and Nestor Garcia, as well as other current and former council members, relating to the Honolulu rail project.

Cachola, who is now a state representative, and Garcia each received hefty fines for various violations of ethics laws related to illegal gifts and undisclosed conflicts of interest.

Totto said publicly that those violations could result in the nullification of certain votes cast by Cachola and Garcia, including those related to Honolulu’s controversial $6 billion rail project.

But Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong disputed Totto’s reasoning, saying that the Ethics Commission didn’t have the authority to nullify votes.

Leong sent a letter June 1 to the commission, complaining about Totto’s remarks to the media about the rail votes. She told commissioners she supported what was then a draft media policy that bars Ethics Commission staff from talking publicly about its decisions and opinions.

Totto opposed the policy, saying in a memo to commissioners that it is “cumbersome” and “impractical.” He said he didn’t understand what problem the rules aimed to solve.

“For at least the last 30 years, best government agency practice has been for agencies to disseminate what they do for the public and how their actions’ impact the public,” Totto said.

“The only practical means of doing so is through media coverage. The Commission’s practice for 15 years has been to accurately inform and respond to media inquiries because the media is the most effective and ubiquitous link to public.”

Totto told the commissioners he was particularly worried about the provision that doesn’t allow him to discuss “concerns” or “grievances.”

He questioned whether this would prevent him from talking openly about budget cuts and strains on Ethics Commission resources.

He also said it’s important for the public, the city work force and the media to understand the “practical effect” Ethics Commission decisions can have on future ethical scenarios.

Civil Beat asked Totto about the commission’s media policy after Wednesday’s meeting. He declined to comment, saying he didn’t have the authority under the new rules.

Read the new policy here:

Here’s Leong’s June 1 letter:

And Totto’s June 24 memo:

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