A key agency tasked with keeping an eye on our elected city officials and department staff could enjoy greater autonomy over its budget, should voters this fall grant them that ability.

Voters are also being asked whether that agency — the Honolulu Ethics Commission — should also be granted more flexibility to hire and retain staff.

The two charter questions are among four questions total this year pertaining to the way the City and County of Honolulu governs. The other two ballot questions ask whether the city prosecutor should be limited to just two four-year terms of office (the position currently has no term limits), and whether Honolulu should establish a Youth Commission.

Separately, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties have their own charter questions. You can read all of them here.

The two amendments about the Honolulu Ethics Commission were proposed by the City Council and approved unanimously this summer, placing them on the fall ballot.

City Ethics chair Victoria Marks. 9 aug 2016
Victoria Marks, a retired state court judge, is the chair of the Honolulu Ethics Commission. She supports two charter amendment questions this fall that she says will strengthen the agency. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Charter Question No. 3, introduced in December by Councilman Tommy Waters, states, “Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to allow the Honolulu Ethics Commission to control its own budget after it has been enacted?”

Charter Question No. 4, introduced by Councilman Ron Menor in April, states, “Shall the Revised Charter be amended to require ethics commission staff to be appointed based on merit principles, but exempt them from the civil service position classification plan, and to have the salaries of all ethics commission staff set by the ethics commission, subject to specified limitations?”

Both questions received little testimony in opposition and have the backing of Jan Yamane, the commission’s executive director and legal counsel, and Victoria Marks, the commission chair.

In her May 8 testimony on the budget control proposal — Resolution 19-131 — Marks said that the amendments would provide the commission “with budget flexibility and greater autonomy” from the city administration. She said the changes would give the commission budget control similar to the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney.

Natalie Iwasa, a longtime observer of Honolulu Hale, said in her own testimony in May that the need for budgetary control arose out of controversy over a commission spending item.

“You may recall several years ago when the executive director of the Honolulu Ethics Commission wanted to purchase a $600 GPS tracking device to be used in an investigation about overtime abuse. City Corporation Counsel at the time disallowed the expenditure, and the (commission) was unable to move forward with their investigation,” Iwasa wrote. “The executive branch should not be able to stymie investigations. One way to stop that from happening is to give control of the budget to the (commission).”

Iwasa added that the City Council would still have to approve the commission’s budget, “so that control would remain in place.”

Reporting on the GPS purchase in 2014, Civil Beat said that the commission wanted to use the tracking device to “investigate city employees suspected of getting paid for work that they didn’t do. The alleged scheme is believed to be costing the city a quarter of a million dollars a year, according to a draft of a letter the Ethics Commission intends to send to Mayor Kirk Caldwell.”

Donna Leong, then the city’s corporation counsel, took five weeks to approve the request, “by which time the investigative window on the case had closed.”

The GPS matter is not mentioned in Resolution 19-331. But it notes that the seven members of the commission are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. It is also attached to the Department of Corporation Counsel — the city’s legal team — for administrative purposes only.

It also points to Honolulu voters approving an amendment to the charter commission in 2016 prohibiting the city administration from withholding funding to the Department of Prosecuting Attorney approved by the council.

“The Council believes that similarly prohibiting the City Administration from withholding funding that has been approved by the Council for the Commission would allow the Commission greater autonomy from the City Administration and further the Commission’s ability to carry out the Commission’s Charter-prescribed duties efficiently and effectively,” the resolution explains.

As Civil Beat has reported, the commission clashed repeatedly with the Caldwell administration in recent years. Yamane replaced longtime director Chuck Totto, who resigned in 2016.

‘Highest Ethical Standards’

The Ethics Commission has also struggled with staffing.

In her testimony on charter amendment No. 4, Marks said its passage would give the commission greater flexibility to describe positions, hire and retain the specialized staff Marks said it needs “to grow and strengthen the city’s ethics and lobbyist programs.”

She said it has “long been a commission vision” to exempt its staff from restrictive classification requirements and to set pay levels. Marks said that the commission feels it is important that the commission “is adequately staffed” and that staff members are “fairly compensated.”

Commission staff are not currently civil service employees, and the city clerk’s office says that question No. 4 won’t change that status. Rather, according to the city, staff are exempt employees, meaning that the commission “may hire and terminate staff at any time without cause.”

Lynne Matusow, who also follows city government closely, testified in opposition to Resolution 20-83.

“It appears there is a hidden agenda as we do not know who is really behind it,” she said. “It was introduced ‘by request.’ What is the name of the requester? This appears to be patronage, pure and simple and neither the Council nor the voters should be fooled by it.”

Marks said the resolution was introduced by Menor at the commission’s request.

If approved by voters by a simple majority, charter amendments No. 3 and 4 would go into effect July 1 and Jan. 1, respectively.

The Honolulu Ethics Commission, according to the city, “ensures that all of Honolulu’s approximately 10,000 elected leaders, appointed officials, and employees understand and follow the highest ethical standards of conduct governing their work for the public.” It educates, advises, and enforces city ethics laws and lobbyist regulations.

It is separate from the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, which is the state’s ethics watchdog agency for state officers and employees.

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