Honolulu Councilwoman Andria Tupola is proposing a city charter amendment that would prevent former councilman Ron Menor from taking office again in January – even if he wins the election. Meanwhile, she has accepted $2,500 a month in consulting fees from one of Menor’s opponents.
Some observers, including Menor, are calling the arrangement a blatant conflict of interest.
Currently, council members are limited to two consecutive terms at a time, but they may leave office and run again later. Last month, Tupola introduced Resolution 22-102, which would restrict council members to two four-year terms total via a charter amendment.
While the proposal would establish a permanent change, it would have an immediate effect on one declared council candidate – Menor, who previously represented council District 9 for eight years.
And one of Menor’s opponents in the race, Keone Simon, has paid Tupola $17,500 since October for “mentor/training” services through her consulting business, Hawaii Leadership Solutions, according to campaign spending data.
“It just reeks of a quid pro quo: I’m paying you for your consulting services and you introduce this resolution to benefit me,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of the government accountability group Common Cause Hawaii. “It just doesn’t look good at all.”
The resolution specifies that even if candidates with eight years on the council get the majority of votes in the 2022 election, they “shall not be eligible to take office on January 2, 2023 or thereafter.”
In that scenario, the resolution says the council would call a special election to fill the vacancy.
In interviews, Tupola and Simon both said they don’t believe there is anything improper about the situation. The councilwoman, who has represented District 1 since last year, said the legislation was not crafted to help Simon.
However, Menor said the resolution could overrule the will of voters and raises “serious conflict of interest and ethics issues” that would “further erode public confidence in our city officials.” He said the matter might be something for the Honolulu Ethics Commission to investigate.
“Councilmember Tupola’s actions are also troubling because elected officials need to maintain the highest ethical standards, especially now, given the recent indictments of city officials and legislators,” he said.
Tupola said the resolution is part of a package of legislation focused on term limits that she’s been working on for months.
Other resolutions would impose term limits on the mayor and prosecuting attorney. She said the effort is about getting new blood in local politics.
“It’s always difficult to run against people who have a lot of name recognition,” Tupola said. “We need a lot of new voices and faces.”
Simon said he wasn’t aware of the resolution until reading about it in the news but he has no qualms about one of his opponents potentially being disqualified. He said he believes in term limits for all elected officials.
“He’s been in office a long time,” Simon said of Menor. “He gets an advantage.”
But Ma, an attorney, questioned the legality of the resolution as proposed.
“I don’t even know how this would work legally,” she said. “Someone’s already filed and pulled papers, and they’re saying if you win the popular vote, you can’t take a seat?”
The measure passed a first reading without discussion at Wednesday’s council meeting. However, seven of the nine council members voted “with reservations” – a way to advance a measure while expressing discomfort with it.
Only Tupola and Councilman Calvin Say voted without reservations.
Charter amendments need to be approved by a supermajority of the council – six of nine members – by July 6 before being printed on the November ballot.
Tupola said approval may take longer than that, in which case, it would only apply to future elections.
“We want these things to be done right, and we don’t want to rush it either,” she said.
Menor and Simon are vying for a seat to represent District 8, which covers Waimalu, Pearl City, Mililani Town and Waipio after the boundaries shifted in the 2021 reapportionment process.
Hawaii House Minority Leader Val Okimoto, former city council staffer Charmaine Doran and Dion Mesta, a legislative aide to Councilman Elefante, are also running for that seat.
City law prohibits elected officials from having a financial interest that may “impair the independence of judgment” in the performance of their duties.
City officials also are required to file a disclosure of interest statement when they have an interest that “might reasonably” create a conflict. Tupola has not filed one. She said on Thursday that she will file one if the resolution gets a hearing.
Menor said it should’ve been filed already.
“At the very least, she should’ve filed a disclosure of interest statement for city council members prior to voting on a resolution,” he said.
The Ethics Commission’s assistant executive director Laurie Wong-Nowinski said in an emailed statement that she can’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
She noted though that while Tupola is introducing the resolution, it would still need to be approved by a majority of the City Council before it is printed on ballots. Then it would be up to voters to approve.
“So there are several steps of removal between her and the outcome of the legislation,” Wong-Nowinski said.
She also noted that the law allows council members to vote on matters even if they have a conflict of interest as long as they disclose it.
This isn’t the first time Tupola has attracted ethics concerns. Earlier this year, the Ethics Commission found the councilwoman likely violated city ethics laws when she tried to use $1,500 in city funds to reimburse herself for purchases related to her former employer.
A former Republican state representative and gubernatorial candidate, Tupola is the council’s floor leader and could have a shot at the council’s chair position if she can form a coalition. She previously ran for governor and hasn’t been shy about her desire to run for that office again in the future.
Council Chair Tommy Waters is weighing a run for Congress, and several other members are leaving office at the end of the year. North Shore councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi is running for governor. Council members Carol Fukunaga and Brandon Elefante can’t run again because of term limits.
Makuakai Rothman, a big wave surfer running to replace Tsuneyoshi, also has hired Tupola’s Hawaii Leadership Solutions, campaign finance reports show. He paid Tupola $8,000 between March and April.
Asked whether she is pursuing the chair position, Tupola wouldn’t say either way. But she said when seats open up, it’s only natural that council members would want candidates with whom they have “common ground.”
“I’m not sure what will happen at the council, if we’ll have a lot of people remain or if people will be enticed to run for Congress,” she said. “I guess we’ll see. I, right now, don’t have any of the chips counted.”
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