Last December, City Council Chairman Ernie Martin flew to Chigasaki, Japan to give a speech in Honolulu’s newly designated sister city.

According to city records, it was the second time he traveled to the city south of Tokyo for City Council business within two months.

But you wouldn’t know any of that if you checked Martin’s official travel or expense reports online.

The councilman representing the North Shore didn’t post travel reports for those trips on the City Council website. There weren’t any details about the trips in his expense report for his individual City Council allowance, either. Every Council member gets an allowance of $20,000 per year.

City Council Chair Ernie Martin1. 1 june 2016.
City Council Ernie Martin went to Japan twice within two months, courtesy of a $95,000 protocol fund for Council expenditures that he controls. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Instead, to fund his trips to Japan, Martin dipped into a $95,000 pot of money known as a protocol fund. The money must be used for official city business and the Council chair has discretion as to how it’s spent.

But unlike City Council members’ individual allowances, no record of how the money is spent is available online.

In recent years, the amount of money in the protocol fund has increased considerably. Three years ago, it had $19,900. In fiscal year 2015, the Council upped the amount to $47,500. This year, that grew to $95,000. Next year’s budget has $99,000.

Martin said in an email that only travel reports for trips that are paid for with individual Council members’ allowances are posted online.

Martin declined numerous requests for an interview on this subject.

He said in an email the fund’s increase relates to his efforts to encourage relationships with international cities, noting that Honolulu now has 32 sister cities.

“Additionally, during my chairmanship I have made it a point to hold full council meetings, public hearings and special committee meetings off site in the community which entails operational expenses,” he wrote.

It was unclear whether he filed any travel reports for trips that he and his staff took last year using money from the protocol fund.

The trips to Japan weren’t the only times Martin traveled on Council business without posting a trip report online. He also flew to Korea, which he said was paid for by a $3,500 gift from Dankook University.

Council rules require members to fill out summaries of what they learned whenever they leave the city on official city business.

While he filed a report for the Korea trip and provided it to Civil Beat, Martin said in the email that only travel reports for trips that are paid for with individual Council members’ allowances are posted online.

That was news to Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga.

“Aren’t they all posted online?” she said when asked about the missing reports. “I assumed that all of our reports were online.”

Councilman Ron Menor was similarly surprised.

“I always assume that all official travel irrespective of the sources of funding … would (require) a travel report and it would be online,” Menor said.

Nothing in the rules appears to require that all the travel reports get posted on the city’s website, but the Council has been in the practice of posting individual Council members’ expenditure reports and travel summaries for over a decade.

But at least seven reports for official travel by Martin, his staff and Council members Ikaika Anderson and Joey Manahan paid for by either the protocol fund or through gifts to the city are missing from the online reports.

Taxpayers can figure out what privately sponsored travel Council members took, but doing so requires sifting through Council gift resolutions, which are approved prior to the trips and don’t include details of what Council members actually did.

And in order to see how protocol fund money is spent, residents have to file Uniform Information Practices Act requests and pay to obtain the documents.

Ann Shaver from the League of Women Voters thinks providing more transparency about Council spending is a no-brainer.

“Something like how travel money is spent, particularly travel money overseas, it’s very important for the public, if for no other reason than for the perception of accountability,” Shaver said. “The more open all of these things are, the better it is, not only hypothetically but to enhance the public’s faith in our government.”

Confusion About What’s Required

Councilman Anderson of Waimanalo spent several days in Busan, South Korea last year along with Manahan to learn about alternative methods of waste disposal.

Manahan didn’t respond to requests for an interview for this report or to an email asking why there is no travel report online documenting his trip to Korea.

Anderson said in a telephone interview that he thought he didn’t have to fill out an official travel report because his trip was sponsored by the Newlife Medical Foundation of Busan. Instead, Anderson said he briefed Martin on the trip after his return, showing him photos of sites visited.

“I felt that my detailed briefing report to the chair was sufficient,” Anderson said.

“I just trust what they’re doing. I don’t question what they’re doing.” — Ann Kobayashi, Council Budget Committee chair

But Council rules say that all city travel — including trips funded by gifts to the city — require Council members to fill out trip summaries explaining what they did. Anderson said he will talk to Martin about whether he should submit a travel report.

In contrast, when Councilman Trevor Ozawa attended a study program for Asian-Americans in Tokyo sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, he posted a detailed description of what he did there within a month.

Chuck Totto, former director of the city Ethics Commission, said not writing a travel report isn’t an ethics violation, but “it’s certainly something that Chair Martin should look into.”

“These are funds that have a lot of discretion in how they’re going to be spent,” Totto said. “Not saying that anyone did anything wrong (but) when you have that broad discretion, it’s appropriate for the public, for the media to be able to take a look at what they’re being expended on.”

Martin himself has yet to post two travel reports for the trips to Japan last fall. Travel summaries also appear to be missing for Council staff members Brandon Mitsuda, who went to Denver, and Peter Boylan, who flew to the mainland on what was described as a homelessness fact-finding trip.

Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who chairs the Budget Committee, said her understanding is that money in the protocol fund is used for the technical expenses of holding Council meetings around the island. But she said she doesn’t have concerns about the money being spent on trips that aren’t reported.

“I just trust what they’re doing,” Kobayashi said. “I don’t question what they’re doing.”

Previous Efforts At Transparency

State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz said he established individual allowances when he served as City Council chairman over a decade ago to ensure that Council members had access to office supplies and other essential needs without having to curry favor with the chairman.

A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Dela Cruz as a member of the state House of Representatives rather than state Senate.

Prior to the individual allowances, the chairman was in charge of distributing money to each member of the Council.

Back in 2005, each Council member got an allowance of $9,920. There was also $9,000 in the protocol fund, which Dela Cruz explained was necessary for communal expenses.

Honolulu City Council members sit as chair addresses some bills. 18 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Honolulu City Council members each have their own allowances in addition to the protocol fund. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“There are certain things that shouldn’t come out of individual members’ funds because it affects the whole Council and the whole city,” Dela Cruz said.

The Council also started posting individual Council allowances online. Dela Cruz couldn’t remember whether the protocol fund’s expenditures were ever online, however.

“I just remember the main effort was — if you’re going to spend it, it should be transparent,” he said of the allowances. “It should be public. That way your constituents can hold you accountable during election time.”

Protocol Fund Details Not Easy To Get

Honolulu resident Natalie Iwasa thinks the same principle should apply to the protocol fund because it’s city money.

Iwasa, an accountant who frequently attends City Council meetings, noticed last year that the budget line called “Council allotments” included $227,500 — much more than the $180,000 needed to give each of the nine Council members a $20,000 allowance.

She asked Martin’s office what the money was for but said she never got a response. She only received a list of expenses this spring after she filed a records request and paid the city $5.

Councilman Brandon Elefante is the only member of the Council who has advocated for more transparency for the protocol fund.

The fund flies so far under the radar that not even Totto had heard of it.

Unlike individual allowances, there don’t appear to be any specific Council rules that apply to how the money is spent.

The records that Iwasa obtained showed that thousands of dollars were used to pay for food, gifts such as leis for sister city delegates and travel.

The most unusual expenditure was $10,000 paid to the Mediation Center of the Pacific.

Councilwoman Fukunaga explained that the company helped facilitate a working group on disputes over private roads in Kakaako. The group made several recommendations to the Legislature on how to address the contentious issue.

Fukunaga previously proposed purchasing mediation services during last year’s budget hearings, but said she removed her amendment after she realized there was another source of funding.

Martin said the protocol fund was used to pay for the mediation services because it was a one-time expense.

Iwasa said she’s concerned that the lack of transparency over the fund allows it to be used for budget proposals that don’t make it through the legislative process.

Councilman Brandon Elefante is the only member of the Council who has advocated for more transparency for this pot of money.

Earlier this year, he sought to amend the budget bill to require that expenditures be posted online. But Martin and Kobayashi disagreed.

“The legislative budget is very small,” Kobayashi said at a budget hearing.

Martin said after the hearing that Elefante should have sought to get his amendment approved at the initial budget presentation. The chair said the issue can be taken up again next year.

Council Allowances

While it’s not easy to get information about the protocol fund, Council members generally seem to be doing a good job of filling out their individual expense reports and posting that information online.

A review of the Council members’ individual expense reports from July 2015 to May 2016 shows that they have largely spent their allowances on office supplies, car costs and off-island travel. Over $5,000 had been spent on leis.

(In the past, some Council members have gotten into trouble for buying lavish meals or getting double reimbursements for car expenses.)

The single most expensive purchase was by Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, who spent more than $3,700 sending more than 14,000 newsletters to her constituents. Pine said sending mailers to constituents, rather than traveling, is the best use of her money.

“I have a lot of elderly people in my community who want to stay connected but they don’t have the internet,” Pine said in a phone interview.

Anderson traveled most frequently this past year. The councilman said that’s because he is the City Council’s representative to the Hawaii State Association of Counties.

He is also on the board of directors of the National Association of Counties, which has four meetings a year.

Kobayashi was the only member of the Council to use her money for donations, giving $1,150 to schools and organizations, including $250 to Manoa Elementary School for its annual Tiger Trek Day.

Totto said giving the money away is in an ethical grey area, but that it’s generally OK as long as the Council chair determines the expense has a community-wide benefit.

Kobayashi said she has always used her Council allowance to make donations to organizations within her district “to keep it a great place.”

So far, Elefante appears to be the most frugal Council member. He still had over $11,000 of his allowance available at the end of May.

The fiscal year’s not over yet — Council members still have the rest of June to spend their allowances.

Four Council members — Menor, Fukunaga, Kobayashi and Manahan — are visiting Seattle this week to learn about efforts to reduce homelessness.

Click here to peruse the Council members’ expenses and travel reports.

Jaelynn Grisso contributed to this report.

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