Chuck Totto took a stand Wednesday against what he described as “silly” rules that he believes undermine the credibility of the Honolulu Ethics Commission.

Totto, executive director of the commission, was recently suspended after an investigation into allegations related to his management style and handling of ethics complaints involving the city’s $6.9 billion rail project.

Part of his punishment, at least as it was laid out by commissioners in their heavily redacted disciplinary memo to Totto, was that he and his staff would have to start tracking their time in tenth-of-an-hour intervals, or every six minutes.

Ethics Commission Chuck Totto. 20 april 2016.
Honolulu Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto has been on the defensive lately when it comes to how he manages his office. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Totto, who has avoided talking to the media ever since his suspension, told commissioners Wednesday during their regularly schedule meeting that he’s been complying with the decree, but that he doesn’t believe it is effective.

In fact, he said the requirement can send a message to the public that the Ethics Commission doesn’t trust its own people.

He said it’s not as if the staff is “drinking beer and reading the newspaper all day.”

“It makes the public think that this is just an inefficient approach to dealing with whatever the problems are at the commission,” Totto said. “I’m a big boy, so if somebody doesn’t like the way I operate on something I’ll deal with it.”

“The commission needs to be mindful that this is a professional office and we’re all professionals, this is not an assembly line.” — Ethics Commissioner Stanford Yuen

Totto has been under pressure for the past several years after getting into several high profile spats with Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration over concerns that officials were manipulating the Ethics Commission budget and interfering with investigations.

Caldwell has since appointed several new commissioners who last year attempted to muzzle Totto with a restrictive media policy that would have prevented him from speaking with the press about ethics decisions.

The seven-member commission has since suspended Totto for a month without pay after a former employee complained to them about improper management and possible violations of the Hawaii Whistleblower Protection Act.

They also told him he would have to follow the six-minute mandate as well as develop office flowcharts for his five-person office.

On Wednesday, at least two commissioners questioned whether they were micromanaging Totto by making him and his staff fill out time sheets. Specifically, they wondered if the six-minute tracking requirement was an effective use of time.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Commissioner Stephen Silva said. “It’s overloading an already overloaded system.”

The Honolulu Ethics Commission, which has seen its caseload increasing, is already short staffed and perennially underfunded. Beginning next week Totto will be the only investigator in his office. Friday is the last day for his current investigator, and a position for associate legal counsel remains open.

Commissioner Stanford Yuen said that given the circumstances that it might be worthwhile for the commission to revisit whether Totto and his staff should be required to fill out time sheets on a monthly basis.

“The commission needs to be mindful that this is a professional office and we’re all professionals, this is not an assembly line,” Yuen said. “There are a lot of variables and uncertainty, so we have to trust the staff and the director of the office.”

Not all commissioners agreed that the six-minute tracking system should be abolished.

Commissioner Allene Suemori, for instance, said that the time sheets can help the commission get a better understanding of how resources are being used in the office so that it is easier to justify to politicians that more money is needed for investigators.

Vice Chairman Michael Lilly, who works as an attorney in Honolulu, said the tracking mechanism can also be used internally by Totto and others to make sure they are working as efficiently as possible.

Attorneys in private practice do this all the time, he said, and it can be useful to make sure that they are not putting too much time into a task that might not provide the biggest return on investment.

“I’ve been keeping time for 35 years,” Lilly said. “Forget the money. It’s (about) too much time for too little return. … It’s merely a time-management function, and that’s how I view the value of timekeeping.”

The commission did not make a decision Wednesday on whether to eliminate the time sheet requirement.

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