A mysterious closed-door meeting of the Honolulu Ethics Commission was canceled Tuesday just hours before it was scheduled to begin.

Last week, the Ethics Commission announced it would hold a special session Tuesday night to talk with the agency’s attorney about “personnel and management matters.” No other details were given.

Ian Lind, a local investigative reporter and Civil Beat columnist, speculated that the agenda item spelled trouble for Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto, who has long been at odds with the administration of Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto has a testy relationship with the Caldwell administration.
Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto has a testy relationship with the Caldwell administration. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The commission canceled the meeting after the state Office of Information Practices found that the agenda posting did not appear to follow state sunshine rules because the description of the executive session was too vague.

An attorney for the agency found that the agenda did not “adequately notify the public of what the board will actually be discussing so that they may submit testimony.” State Sen. Les Ihara had asked OIP to weigh in on the matter.

Totto said Tuesday he didn’t know the purpose of the planned executive session. While his staff usually produces commission agendas, that was not the case for Tuesday’s meeting. Totto would not comment on who outside of his office would have scheduled a special meeting.

The commission recently dismissed charges against current and former City Council members who were accused of not disclosing that they had accepted gifts from lobbyists.

Totto had raised questions about whether those alleged violations would invalidate certain votes that were taken on Honolulu’s controversial $6.6 billion rail project. His stance led to a public spat with the Caldwell administration.

Not long after, the commission — led by a cadre of retired judges appointed by Caldwell — tried to muzzle Totto with a restrictive media policy that effectively stopped him from talking to the press about ethics decisions. It rescinded the policy a few days later and adopted a different one.

The Caldwell administration has long had a frosty relationship with the Ethics Commission, starting with the agency’s investigation of the mayor’s inaugural luau, which was paid for in large part by lobbyists and city contractors.

Since then there have been numerous public fights over the Ethics Commission budget and the administration’s refusal to cooperate with investigations. At one point, Totto considered issuing subpoenas to members of Caldwell’s cabinet.

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