The Honolulu Ethics Commission may backtrack on its recently adopted news media policy that prohibited Executive Director Chuck Totto and other staff members from interpreting or commenting on the commission’s decisions and advisory opinions.

But contradictory statements in a new proposed policy drafted by Vice Chair Michael Lilly raise questions about whether Totto would still have to seek approval before talking to the media.

Chair Katy Chen, Lilly and commissioners Stephen Silva and Stanford Yuen are backing a motion to discard the restrictive news media policy adopted last month.

Chuck Totto, Honolulu Ethics Commission

Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

The seven-member commission plans to meet 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the Standard Financial Plaza to consider whether to replace it with another one drafted by Lilly. Also on the agenda is Totto’s performance evaluation.

Lilly and Commissioner Riki May Amano requested that the commission consider the new draft media policy that would allow Totto to respond to media inquiries “in normal course.”

Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said he’s glad the commission is reconsidering its news media policy.

“The June policy was a heavy-handed way to address any dissatisfaction that the commission had with the executive director and statements he may have made in the past,” Black said. “And that policy was stifling in a way that is counterproductive to the commission’s education mission.”

But Black pointed out that while the third paragraph of the proposed new policy gives the executive director the ability to respond to media inquiries directly and inform the commission members of his statements after the fact, a provision in the next paragraph appears to contradict that.

“The June policy was a heavy-handed way to address any dissatisfaction that the commission had with the executive director and statements he may have made in the past.” — Brian Black, Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest

A holdover from the policy adopted June 24, the provision would continue to require the executive director to consult with the commission chair, vice-chair or another designated commissioner when media statements are requested.

That’s a time-consuming requirement, according to Totto and the commission’s associate legal counsel, Laurie Wong. In a July 17 letter to Chen, the two wrote that the condition triples the amount of time it takes to handle media inquiries.

Totto and Wong said the commission had received six questions from the media since the June 24 policy was adopted.

“If we annualize number of media inquiries, there will be about 100 media inquiries this year. The new process will require 30 minutes time for each of 100 requests or 50 hours of response time. The traditional media practice would require only 17 hours,” Totto and Wong wrote.

They said the provision results in a “significant loss of our very limited resources.”

Reached by phone, Lilly declined to comment. Totto also did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think the commission should be commended for its willingness to reconsider the policy, but in doing so, the July policy still has issues and is confusing,” Black said.

Loosening the Rules

The restrictive policy adopted June 24 was drafted by Amano. The proposed new policy was written by Lilly, an attorney who wasn’t present at last month’s meeting.

The new draft would allow the executive director to comment on how the commission’s findings and opinions could impact hypothetical situations.

That’s a big departure from the policy adopted last month, which prevents the commission staff from interpreting or commenting on decisions and advisory opinions at all.

But Lilly’s draft would still require Totto to talk to the Ethics Commission chair, vice-chair or a designated member before replying to media inquiries.

Totto opposed the June 24 policy change, calling it “cumbersome” and “impractical” in a June 19 letter to the commission members.

The commission adopted it regardless on a 5-1 vote. Only Chen voted against the change.

The policy came after Totto was quoted in a May 28 newspaper article stating that former City Council members Romy Cachola’s and Nestor Garcia’s ethics violations could nullify their votes on the city’s $6 billion rail project.

Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong sent a letter to the commission June 1 complaining about Totto’s remarks. In the letter, she called for a media policy that would prevent Totto from talking publicly about the commission’s decisions and opinions.

Read the meeting agenda and the proposed new media policy:

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