Honolulu ethics guidelines say city departments shouldn’t accept any gifts from those doing business with their agencies. That includes contractors.

But for at least five years, a major city contractor, the RM Towill Corp., has gifted lunches to city agencies.

Among them is the Honolulu City Council, whose chair recently pledged to reimburse the company for a 100-person luncheon amid ethics concerns. On Nov. 20, the engineering company also footed the holiday lunch bill for over 200 workers in the departments of Design and Construction and the Environmental Services’ Wastewater Division at around $8 per head, according to the mayor’s office.

Honolulu Hale bathed in sunrise light.
What’s the difference between a gift and a “token of aloha”? It depends on who you ask. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Towill has nearly $8 million in design and construction contracts alone. The city and Towill said the food was just a “token of aloha” that can be considered an exception to the regular ethics rules.

“We’re not expecting anything from these tokens of aloha,” said David Tanoue, vice president of RM Towill. “Just thanking them for their public service.” 

That conflicts with Honolulu Ethics Commission guidelines that advise city agencies they are generally prohibited from accepting anything from city contractors – regardless of the value of the gift. A Frequently Asked Questions sheet from the commission specifically says a private company can buy lunch for a city office only if the meal is “simply and modestly priced” and “the private company has no business before your city agency.”

“To buy an entire department lunch seems kind of problematic,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates for open and ethical government. “It does seem to raise an inference of impropriety.” 

While offering a token of aloha like a lei or box of manapua valued at less than $50 is generally acceptable, Ethics Director Jan Yamane said earlier this month that larger gestures can be problematic. Whether a scenario amounts to an ethics violation is considered on a case-by-case basis, she said. Yamane was unavailable for comment for this story.

The city’s position is that the lunches were harmless because the cost per person was low and the city departments don’t hire Towill directly, according to Andrew Pereira, Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s outgoing communications director. Contracts are awarded through a procurement process.

“There would be very little room if any for influence,” Pereira said. “It was just a simple gift of aloha to show employees appreciation for the work they do.” 

Tanoue added that Towill representatives didn’t attend the lunch or display their brand.

To cut through any confusion, Honolulu Ethics Commission members have been discussing whether they should put an end to gifts of aloha altogether.

“It’s slippery,” Commissioner Peter Adler said at an October meeting as he moved for a zero-tolerance policy.

Gifts of aloha are mostly offered to employees who have a public-facing role, like clerks, Yamane said.

“The idea of a tip jar on a city counter would probably not be OK,” Yamane said. “How different is a box of manapua? Is that a tip for a city employee who is already getting paid to do their city job?”

At the meeting, Oahu resident Natalie Iwasa cautioned against a total ban on gifts of aloha. She said she appreciates the opportunity to provide baked goods to the fire department because city firefighters saved her husband’s life.

“It’s an expression of gratitude,” she said.

Commissioner David Monk liked the idea of clear boundaries but worried a hardline approach might offend people who try to show goodwill toward the city.

“Clean and simple is very appealing,” he said. “But culturally, to have something like that imposed here I think would be very painful for a lot of people.”

The commission is expected to make a decision sometime next year.

Tanoue said it would be helpful for the commission to clarify what’s allowed and what isn’t.

“I read somewhere this was OK,” he said. “Maybe they can provide more guidance for everybody.” 

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