Right after Honolulu City Council members voted on Wednesday to advance a controversial rezoning measure, they broke for lunch – a spread of shoyu pork, chicken and salads all paid for by a company representing the landowner.
That’s despite guidance from the Honolulu Ethics Commission that government agencies should not accept gifts – defined as anything the government didn’t pay full value for – from companies with business before them.
“That’s a concern for sure,” said Natalie Iwasa, an Oahu resident who testified against Bill 27. “We have these rules in place for a reason.”
RM Towill, an engineering consultant, contributed food valued at $6 to $8 per head for about 100 people at the “holiday lunch,” according to Council Communications Director Louise McCoy.
On Monday night, McCoy emailed to say council Chair Ikaika Anderson had decided to reimburse the company for the lunch with his personal funds.
Ethics Commission guidelines address this very scenario. And city agencies received a reminder of how to handle these matters just last week.
“A private company offered to buy lunch for our city office of over 50 people. May we accept?” the Frequently Asked Questions sheet asks.
“Generally yes, if the lunch is relatively simple and modestly priced per person (e.g., bento or chili/rice, drink, and dessert) and the private company has no business before your city agency.”
On Wednesday, council members took their lunch break right after voting on whether Horseshoe Land Company LLC – for which RM Towill is an agent – can rezone preservation land in Kaneohe as residential. The company wants to build eight houses, a plan that’s been hit by fierce opposition from community members, hundreds of whom have signed a petition against it.
Those who protest the project say they have concerns about environmental impacts and flooding in the area and object on principle to the conversion of preservation land for residential use.
Most council members were less than enthusiastic about supporting the rezoning bill but voted to advance it anyway. Five council members voted to approve the rezoning “with reservations,” including Carol Fukunaga, Ann Kobayashi, Joey Manahan, Ron Menor and Heidi Tsuneyoshi. Anderson voted no, as did members Brandon Elefante, Kymberly Pine and Tommy Waters.
Civil Beat emailed each council member’s communications representative for comment about the free lunch on Monday. Only Menor responded.
“I had advised Chair Anderson of my position that the Council should not accept RM Towill’s offer to provide lunch,” he wrote in a message. “I also instructed members of my staff not to partake in the lunch, which they complied with.”
McCoy said Towill has provided a holiday lunch to the council and its staffers for the past five years. The donated food supplemented rice, desserts and baked goods brought in by staff for a potluck, she said, and Towill representatives did not attend.
Prior to accepting RM Towill’s offer, Anderson’s office reached out to the Ethics Commission to “ensure that acceptance would not create any conflicts or violate any laws,” McCoy said.
Civil Beat requested documentation of the commission’s approval, but McCoy did not provide any.
Later Monday night, McCoy said Anderson didn’t want there to be any appearance of impropriety or misinterpretation and told the Ethics Commission his office will reimburse RM Towill for the cost of the lunch.
“The chairman is awaiting an invoice from RM Towill showing the exact cost of their food contribution to the potluck,” McCoy wrote in an email.
Anderson declined to comment directly for this story.
Ethics Director Jan Yamane said she could not confirm or deny whether she OK’d the free lunch. Requests for advice are confidential, she said.
In general, she said it’s all right for agencies to accept “tokens of aloha,” small items like lei or boxes of manapua. Larger gestures – especially to agencies with real decision-making power – may warrant more scrutiny.
“That’s where the analysis comes in,” she said.
David K. Tanoue, vice president of RM Towill, said he considered the food a gift of aloha because of its low cost per person.
“We didn’t expect anything out of it,” he said. “It was just to say thanks for their public service and sacrifice.”
In another notice issued by the commission, the Elf on the Shelf offers advice on when accepting gifts is appropriate, and when it’s not. Gifts are “usually prohibited, regardless of the value of the gift,” when the giver is a person or business that is:
A request for rezoning would be “similar” to applying for a permit, Yamane said.
“We counsel agencies as a general matter that if you feel uncomfortable about it, you can always decline,” she said. “Tell them the Grinch told you to do it.”
Kauʻi Pratt-Aquino, an attorney and Kaneohe resident who has fought in opposition to the rezoning, said she hopes “special interests” will not influence the judgment of the city’s elected leaders. She said the community was already concerned about campaign donations to council members from the project’s representatives.
“We cannot understand how this project can continue to progress given all the direct witness testimony given to the council,” said Pratt-Aquino, who is running for a state representative seat. “The concern is what other factors are influencing this process?”
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