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Council might redo disputed rail votes

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Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin said Friday that he will ask his colleagues to consider revoting on key bills and resolutions tied to the city’s $6 billion rail project that have been called into question by recent Ethics Commission investigations.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the Campbell Estate heiress who demanded that the Council take new votes for the project or stop funding it said they intend to file a lawsuit against the city since they have yet to get an answer to their request.

Martin told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he will put the matter on an upcoming agenda so that he and his eight colleagues can discuss the votes in a public session. But first, he said, he wants to hear the advice of city Corporation Counsel Donna Leong on the matter, a conversation that will take place  behind closed doors.

The Office of Council Services, the research arm of the Council, has looked into the matter and how the Council members would go about reaffirming the votes, he said.

At this point, Martin said, he is leaning toward redoing the disputed votes that are tied to rail.

Typically, bills that go before the Council must get three votes to be approved, while resolutions are voted on once or twice, depending on their nature.

“As the chair, my inclination is to put these matters up for a vote again … but I’m only one member,” he said. “It comes down to a matter of public confidence and trust and transparency not necessarily with rail per se, but with the whole legislative process.”

He added, “If there are any perceptions out there that these votes are tainted, to some degree, then it behooves us to at least take a look at any type of legislative remedies that we could apply to clear up any misperceptions that perhaps the votes may have been tainted.”

The Council is also being asked to consider if it wants to approve a five-year extension of the 0.5 percent general excise tax surcharge that provides a major share of the funding for the rail project. The extension, which would have taxpayers paying the surcharge through 2027, was approved by the state Legislature in the spring and signed into law by Gov. David Ige in June, but still needs Council approval.

Martin said any revotes the Council chooses to undertake may follow the same timetable as the deliberations on a rail tax extension “as a matter of convenience.”

He said he hopes to have the staff’s analysis on the issues done in time for the Council to begin discussions next month. The goal, he said, “is to have these matters resolved before the end of the year.”

The timeline is apparently not quick enough for Honolulu resident Abigail Kawananakoa, who last week fired off a letter to Martin, Leong and Mayor Kirk Caldwell demanding that they either revote on the questionable measures or stop funding the rail project.

Kawananakoa attorney Bridget Morgan said that while she and her client are encouraged that Council members are open to clearing up the matter, “there’s no assurance that they’re taking steps in that direction.”

Since Kawananakoa has yet to hear back from city officials, “we are going to proceed,” Morgan said, adding, “we are working toward having the complaint ready to file on Tuesday.”

Kawananakoa is making her request on her own behalf, not for the former Campbell Estate. The estate and its successor company, the Kapolei Development Co., were among the parties that Ethics Commission investigations revealed had given gifts of golf and meals to Council members.

Case law says lawmakers must announce any potential conflicts before voting on bills or resolutions that may have a bearing on the interests of parties from whom they have received gifts.

The Ethics Commission in the past year reached agreements with former Council members Romy Cachola and Nestor Garcia that have them paying fines to settle allegations that they violated city ethics laws by failing to announce conflicts before voting on rail and West Oahu development projects. Under the settlements, no formal findings were reached by the commission and the two men admitted no wrongdoing.

But both commission Executive Director Chuck Totto and commission Vice Chairman Michael Lilly said they believe revotes should be taken on the questioned bills and resolutions.

Leong told the Star-Advertiser in July that she does not believe the votes need to be retaken because the commission “made no findings of misconduct or ethical violations” on the part of any Council members.

Cachola, after paying his fine, said that if he had done wrong, so too did five other current or former Council members who accepted gifts from the parties and then failed to disclose conflicts of interest on matters that bolstered donor interests.

Besides Garcia, the four others are current members Ikaika Anderson and Ann Kobayashi, and former members Todd Apo and Donovan Dela Cruz. Ethics Commission investigations are pending.

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