Part-time elected officials are accused from time to time of engaging in conflicts of interest through their private jobs. That is part of the system, and City Council Chairman Nestor Garcia has now agreed to play by the rules of disclosure that could be regarded as a conflict after neglecting to do so for more than a year. He should have known better, especially because of wrist slaps given in a similar situation to his predecessor as Council chairman.
Panos Prevedouros, a vocal opponent of the rail transit project from Kapolei to Ala Moana, has accused Garcia of engaging in a conflict on that issue through his part-time job as executive assistant of the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce. Garcia told KITV that he takes minutes at chamber meetings and organizes quarterly events. He was hired for $5,000 a month in early 2009.
The chamber includes several member companies that would benefit from the rail line. For obvious reasons, the rail is overwhelmingly supported by residents throughout Garcia’s district — Village Park, Royal Kunia, Waipahu, Waikele, Mililani Town and Makakilo.
In state legislatures, including Hawaii’s, lawyers gravitate to judiciary committees, doctors to health committees and business people to economic committees. While some regard that as conflicting, others see it as making use of their knowledge of various parts of the economy.
Having said that, elected officials must be open about their work in the private sector to maintain their integrity and to keep public policymaking as transparent as possible. Garcia finally disclosed the part-time job in his report to the city Ethics Commission — but only after a KITV reporter blew the whistle on him. He says he will begin disclosing his association with the chamber whenever rail issues come before the Council. Interestingly, city ethics law requires disclosure for conflicts, but not recusal from voting on said conflicts; this merits more discussion.
Garcia is not the only Honolulu City Council member who has been accused of such a conflict. Five years ago, then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann accused then-Councilman Todd Apo of being in conflict on the issue of whether the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill should be closed. At the time, Apo was employed as an executive of the Ko Olina Community Association, which wanted the landfill closed. So did Apo, who lives below the landfill.
“When I am doing anything for the City Council,” Apo said, “my job is to represent my community, my constituents and the city as a whole.”
Nevertheless, the city Ethics Commission chastised Apo for neglecting to file his written disclosure of interests until months after his vote on two bills on the landfill. The commission took no disciplinary action because “the conflict appears to be an honest mistake.” However, in February, after Apo had left the Council, the commission fined him $500 for having made the same exact mistake more recently.
Garcia noted that he has been supportive of the rail project since he became a Council member in 2003, long before he was hired by the Kapolei Chamber. While he claims not to be motivated on the issue by his annual $60,000 from the organization, his future votes on rail will be weighted by the taint. Yes, he certainly needs to disclose the conflict before casting a vote on rail issues, which are sure to remain controversial. It will be up to his constituents and the public to believe whether those votes are his own.