Story updated 5:11 p.m., 3/2/2020

Public records in which Honolulu officials disclose their business interests, real estate holdings and family ties are no longer posted on the Honolulu Ethics Commission’s website, and disclosures from past years have been deleted.

Where there used to be at least two year’s worth of forms from Mayor Kirk Caldwell, his cabinet and Honolulu City Council members, the site directs people to the city clerk’s office where the documents can only be viewed in person during business hours.

Honolulu Ethics Commission Director Jan Yamane declined to discuss the decision by phone last week. Ethics Chair Vicky Marks did not return a request for comment on Friday.

“The Clerk is the custodian of record for forms filed at their office,” Yamane wrote by email. “Not much else to add.”

It is “extraordinarily troubling” that the commission would make it harder for the public to access the records, said Sandy Ma, executive director of the government accountability nonprofit Common Cause Hawaii.

“That is how the public keeps tabs on our elected officials and finds out if there’s any conflict of interest or potential conflicts of interest,” she said. “This is a way we help the Ethics Commission to keep an eye on their elected officials.”

City Ethics Commission Executive Director and Legal Counsel Jan Yamane. 9 aug 2016
Posting disclosure forms isn’t the Ethics Commission’s job, according to its director, Jan Yamane, right. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

When Civil Beat visited the city clerk’s office to review public disclosure forms last week, a reporter was told she could view the records for free, but the office would impose fees to copy the records – even if the reporter scanned them with her own smartphone.

That’s wrong,” said Natalie Iwasa, an independent government watchdog. “Obviously that is not very transparent. It should be easily, readily available to the public without having to go in person to the clerk’s office.” 

Asked for the legal provision that allows a charge for someone copying records with their own device, an employee said it was the guidance of the Corporation Counsel’s office.

Financial disclosure forms, completed every year, provide important information about city officials’ interests outside of their public roles. Caldwell’s most recent form revealed he took in at least $155,638 from Territorial Savings Bank in 2019 – a result of his earnings as a bank director and exercising stock options.

On the state level, financial disclosure forms are posted online, noted Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

“The State Ethics Commission has taken steps toward making financial disclosures more readily accessible to the public,” he said. “So it is all the more shockingly regressive that the City has gone in the opposite direction to make public financial disclosures harder to get.”

On Monday, the commission posted a note to its website:

“The Ethics Commission was never responsible for making these public disclosures available, but had been posting them on the Web for several years as a convenience to the public.  Because of limited staff resources, these postings were often delayed or incomplete.  The time required to maintain them interfered with the Commission’s defined responsibilities, including investigations.  Aiming to improve its efficiency and responsiveness in its core tasks, the Commission decided to shed this non-required, duplicative work load. The Ethics Commission agrees that transparency in City and County government is a paramount goal, and will support efforts to make public disclosures more widely available.”

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