City ethics commission reviews gift prohibitions for employees

Feb. 22—A proposal to prohibit City and County of Honolulu employees from accepting gifts related to their official duties is under scrutiny.

A proposal to prohibit City and County of Honolulu employees from accepting gifts related to their official duties is under scrutiny.

But Bill 26, introduced in April 2022 by City Council Chair Tommy Waters, is also on a tight two-year deadline—with a looming expiration date in April—to either pass or die while it awaits further Council review.

During a virtual meeting Wednesday, the Honolulu Ethics Commission discussed but took no formal action on the measure. As drafted, Bill 26 would prohibit gifts to the mayor, prosecuting attorney, Council members, city administration officers, or any person employed by the city, as a means to curb potential conflicts of interest or even prevent public corruption.

"The City and County of Honolulu shall maintain the integrity of its elected and appointed officers and employees and assure the public that such officers and employees are above reproach and not subject to influence by city vendors, clients, or others, " the draft measure reads. "They, as agents of public purpose, shall faithfully discharge the duties of their offices regardless of personal considerations and with no expectation of gift, gratuity, reward, or other thing of value, unless exempted."

The measure follows recent public corruption scandals at city agencies including inside the Honolulu Police Department and the city Department of Planning and Permitting.

As defined in the measure, a gift means any gift, whether in the form of money, goods, service, loan, travel, entertainment, hospitality or a thing "of value, favor, gratuity, commission, or promise in any other form " received by a city employee from anyone doing business with the city.

The prohibited gift-givers would include "lobbyists, vendors, contractors, clients, political committees, tenants, concessionaires, persons with an interest that may be affected by performance or non-performance of the official's or employee's official duties, and any individual seeking official action from, or doing business with, the city, " according to the draft measure.

Moreover, "no city officer or employer shall solicit, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, any gift " from a prohibited source ; or "under circumstances in which it can be reasonably inferred that the gift is intended : to influence the solicitor or recipient in the performance of an official duty ; or as a reward or gratuity for any official action on the solicitor's or recipient's part, " the draft measure states.

But certain exemptions to the gift-giving ban are included under Bill 26 :—Each fiscal year, from July 1 to June 30, no city administration officer or employee shall solicit, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, from any one source any gift or gifts, unless of negligible value—an item equal to or less than $25.—Gifts received by a will or intestate succession.—Gifts received as part of a trust established by a living or deceased spouse or ancestor.—Gifts from a spouse, fiance, fiancee, any relative, fourth-degree relative, or the spouse, domestic partner, fiance, or fiancee of such a relative. However, a gift from any such person shall not be exempt if the person is acting as an agent or intermediary for any person not covered "by this subsection."—Political campaign contributions that comply with state law.—Gifts that, within 30 days after receipt, are returned to the giver or donated to a public body or to an educational or charitable institution without the donation being claimed by a city administration officer or employee as a charitable contribution for tax purposes.—Exchanges of negligible and approximately equal value on holidays, birthdays, or special occasions.—Lawful compensation as a city administration officer or employer.—Typical beverage or snack given when attending a conference or meeting in an office.—Items customarily given to express condolences or sympathy, such as flowers, food items or cards given to a city administration officer or employee in connection to a death or significant injury. Such expressions of condolences may include monetary gifts of negligible value.—Lei of negligible value at a celebration.—Award, plaque, certificate, memento, novelty, or similar item of no resale value given in recognition of the employee's civic, charitable, political, professional, or public service.—Gifts received while visiting other cities, counties, states or countries, or while hosting visitors, when it would be a breach of protocol to refuse the gift or other tokens or recognition presented by representatives of governmental bodies acting in their official capacities, the draft bill indicates.

At the meeting, Laurie Wong-Nowinski, the Ethics Commission's assistant executive director and legal counsel, said Bill 26 currently sits idle, with no formal review by the Council's Committee on Executive Matters and Legal Affairs since August 2022.

"From what I understand there is a two-year cycle and the bill will die, so to speak, if we don't get it back on (the Council committee's ) agenda before this coming April, " she said. "So we're really trying to make a push to get this back on the agenda."

Over the past month, Wong-Nowinski noted she, along with Ethics Commission Executive Director Jan Yamane and Ethics Commission Chair David Monk, separately met with Council member Tyler Dos Santos-Tam—who presides over that designated committee—to discuss Bill 26.

Due to the meetings, the bill's language is "more narrowly tailored, " she said.

Among Dos Santos-Tam's concerns over Bill 26 was "being able to receive a lei of 'negligible value'. In our definition of the proposed law the 'negligible value' is $25, " she said. "His concern was with the cost of everything these days, it's hard to get very much for $25, let alone most floral leis."

Still, she said she was hopeful the Council's committee would review the bill in March.

Natalie Iwasa, a nonvoting Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board member, submitted written testimony on Bill 26.

Appointed by the Hawaii Legislature in 2021, Iwasa, in her individual capacity, aired concerns over the bill's legal ramifications for HART officials.

"Currently two legal interpretations apply to the state appointees to the HART board, " she wrote. "The Hono ­lulu Corporation Counsel has opined that the legislature did not have the authority to appoint members of the HART board ; therefore, appointees are not chartered board members or city officers ; and, "The Hawaii Attorney General has stated she knows of 'no legal authority to support treating a board member differently based on the board members' appointing authority, " she wrote, noting "given these opposing opinions, it is not clear whether state appointees to the HART board would be impacted by this bill.

"Therefore, rather than work with council members to pass this bill before it dies, please work with Corporation Counsel and the Hawaii Attorney General's office to clarify whether state appointees fall under the definition of 'officers' as defined in " city laws, she wrote.

Meanwhile, Monk, the Ethics Commission chair, said he spoke "individually " with Dos Santos-Tam and Waters over Bill 26.

"My impression was they were both favorably inclined to try to move this forward and not let it die of old age on the calendar, " he concluded.