The New Laws are Needed to Maintain the Public's Trust in Government. It has been many years since the city's ethics laws were reviewed and updated. In the interim, the public's general distrust of government, highlighted by ethics scandals, has resulted in greater scrutiny of government officials at all levels. Strong ethics laws are essential to an ethical government culture. To that end, Section 11-101, Revised Charter of Honolulu, requires that all city personnel "shall demonstrate by their example the highest ethical standards" so "that the public may justifiably have trust and confidence in the integrity of government."
The amendments are intended to:
a. Establish high standards of ethical conduct for city officers and employees;
b. Foster public confidence in the integrity of city agencies and the Council;
c. Promote early consideration of potential ethical problems and provide clear guidance to officers and employees on the standards of conduct; and
d. Enhance the accountability and minimize unwarranted suspicion of city government.
The substantive amendments cover the spectrum of ethics issues that arise in government. Many of the proposed changes codify advisory opinions and guidelines that the Commission has developed over the years. Others are incorporated from federal law or jurisdictions that have recently evaluated and updated their laws. Here are the topics that the Commission believes warrant changes in the ethics laws:
1. Codify the personal interests that can result in conflicts of interest. City officers and employees must have notice of which family or other personal relationships require disclosure and recusal. In addition, the law could define the rule of necessity and class exceptions for conflict of interest situations. The "rule of necessity" and "class" exceptions allow city officers or employees, who would otherwise be disqualified from acting in a matter because they have a conflict of interest, to act in narrow but important situations.
2. Lower the gift cap to $50, and define and limit indirect gifts, gifts given because of government status and gifts from restricted sources, and reinstate gift reporting. Gifts to government officials raise concerns that the donors will be favored by the recipients, especially when compared to ordinary citizens. These restrictions should help the public understand that gifts are very limited and not a benefit of public service.
3. Make financial disclosures more meaningful. Place the burden of providing all material information on financial disclosure forms on filers (rather than the Commission) in order to avoid penalties. Also, require disclosure of financial information relating to all household members and dependents.
4. Codify specific misuse of city resources. Identify and prohibit common types of misuse of city resources (e.g., for political campaign purposes, supporting a personal business, and hiring family members). The Commission only has guidelines and advisory opinions as to specific misuses of public resources, where we should have ordinances.
5. Add an anti-retaliation provision. Make it an ethics violation to retaliate against anyone who submits a complaint, requests advice, or cooperates in a Commission investigation. Retaliation in the workplace is a real fear to those who bring unethical conduct to their department's or the Commission's attention. This would be timely given that ethics training for all employees will soon start.
6. Political campaign assistance and contributions. Prohibit city officers and employees from soliciting political campaign assistance and contributions from other city officers or employees, lobbyists, and those doing business with or those who are regulated by the city. This limitation is intended to limit political activities without interfering with an official's right to political free speech.
7. Give rulemaking authority to the Commission. The Commission should be given substantive rulemaking authority so that it may develop and update laws as the need requires.
8. Authorize the Commission to impose civil fines on lobbyists. This would provide an effective penalty against lobbyist violations, along with suspension or revocation of the lobbyist's registration.
9. Amend the Charter to require that councilmembers may not participate or vote on a measure where they have a conflict of interest. The vast majority of jurisdictions prohibit councilmembers from voting on matters where they have conflicts of interest because it undermines the public's trust in the reason why a councilmember is voting a certain way.