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Tuesday, September 17, 2002

City & County of Honolulu

Ethics panel rules
city’s letters were
proper use

Taxpayer cash paid for letters
urging support of the mayor’s budget

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

The Harris administration did nothing improper by using taxpayers' money to send more than 10,000 letters asking people to lobby the Honolulu City Council on behalf of the mayor's budget proposals, the city Ethics Commission has ruled.

But several Council members who first raised the question this spring said they still think it was improper to use city resources to rally neighborhood boards, vision teams and other special interests against a position taken by another branch of city government.

Managing Director Ben Lee, in a communication to the Council earlier this month, said the administration spent $9,085.64 in postage, staff time and materials to send budget-related letters.

Among those receiving letters -- signed by various department heads -- were neighborhood board members; supporters of Harris-initiated Sunset on the Beach, Brunch on the Beach and Rediscover Oahu programs; and Central Oahu Regional Park advocates.

Each of the letters concluded: "The City Council is proposing cuts that threaten to undermine the progress that has been made. Some City Council members say our city is on the verge of collapse. These comments are irresponsible and absolutely not true."

The letters went on to urge the reader to tell Council members to restore the cuts. Phone, fax and e-mail information for the nine Council members were attached. The letters, dated May 7 or 8, also suggested "you may wish to testify" at a Budget Committee meeting May 16.


Nearly 200 people signed up to testify for the hearing, with others also on hand to show support for their programs.

The Ethics Commission opinion, issued by Chairman Robin David Liu on Sept. 6, said there was no violation of city ethics laws.

"The commission finds that it is within the scope of the discretionary duties and responsibilities of the administration to inform the public of the administration's position on budget matters and to encourage the public to state their concerns to the Council," Liu wrote.

Further, he wrote, "We have found no law that prevents the administration from using city resources to advocate on behalf of the administration's view of any bill, whether budgetary or other."

As for the money spent, Liu wrote: "Whether the cost of the administration's letter-writing campaign was excessive is a question for public discussion. ... Therefore, the cost issue is not one we will examine."

Council members who were critical of Harris' budget said they still don't think the administration should have sent the letters.

Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said she feels the administration crossed the line by attempting to pit the public against the Council.

"It's one thing for the administration to send out a notice of a meeting; it's another thing when they state their views on the matter that's to be discussed," she said.

She noted that the opinion cites a federal law that prohibits the lobbying of members of Congress by employees of the executive branch using federal funds except under limited circumstances.

"Maybe we have to change the law, then," Kobayashi said.

"I personally don't think it was a wise expenditure of money," said Councilman Gary Okino, who sought the opinion from the Ethics Commission. "It was an extraordinary effort, not part of the normal process."

Councilman John Henry Felix said: "The Council has never initiated a lobbying effort at taxpayers' expense against the administration. It's just inappropriate to expend taxpayers' money in that manner."

But Councilman Steve Holmes, who supported the mayor's budget, said use of taxpayers' money to espouse a position is a common practice.

He noted that Council members routinely use staff time and city postage to send newsletters to constituents giving their positions on tough issues.

"Even Council members get to lobby at public expense," Holmes said.

"It's been a long-standing part of the process."

For instance, he said, he himself spent staff time and resources explaining his position on former Mayor Frank Fasi's controversial and highly scrutinized fixed-rail system.

"That's kind of part of the job," Holmes said.

But Lynne Matusow, chairwoman of the Downtown Neighborhood Board, called it "a waste of money" when the money could have gone to paying for essential services like police and fire personnel.

She said she was particularly outraged because she and others received more than three letters each from different city directors on the same subject.

"They were exerting pressure by getting the average citizens to lobby the Council members who are going to be making a decision on something the administration wants," Matusow said.

Lee issued a news release late yesterday that said: "We're not going to allow either the City Council or the media to stop us from keeping the public informed on city issues."

City & County of Honolulu

E-mail to City Desk


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