Former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou and former Mayor Peter Carlisle ganged up on Mayor Kirk Caldwell at a live mayoral candidate forum Monday night, accusing him of engineering the resignation of longtime Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto.
Caldwell denied the charge flatly during the live forum on Insights on PBS Hawaii broadcast. The fiery exchange over the city ethics occurred just after the hour-long portion of the forum that was broadcast live over television ended, and during an extra seven minutes available only on pbshawaii.org.
Asked by moderator Daryl Huff about what issue has not received enough attention this election, Djou said “how the city Ethics Commission has been completely railroaded.”
Totto, shortly after Caldwell took office, “started asking the wrong questions” by delving into a luau sponsored by the mayor’s supporters, Djou said. It was “disturbing” that Totto resigned under pressure from Caldwell and his appointees. “I didn’t always agree with (Totto),” he said, recalling his time on the City Council. “But I thought he was good, hard-working, dedicated public servant.”
Totto had no problems during three previous administrations “and when Kirk became mayor, he had all this turbulence,” Djou said, adding that he would work to have Totto reinstated.
Totto agreed to resign in mid-June after a tumultuous few months which saw him suspended without pay (for, among other things, fostering a bad work environment) and forced along with other staffers to log his work activities in six-minute blocks. Totto has also complained that Corporation Counsel Donna Leong had micro-managed the commission office, eliminating $6,000 in training for city employees and “unilaterally changing our budget.” For several months, the commission restricted what Totto, other commission staff, and even themselves, could say to the media, but rescinded that requirement amid public outcry.
The commission was designed to act independent of other agencies, but is attached to the Department of Corporation Counsel for administrative purposes.
Carlisle, who has been Totto’s attorney during his clashes with members of the seven-member commission, said “absolutely and unequivocally there has been a complete evisceration of ethics in the City and County of Honolulu. It’s been booted out the door. There is no Ethics Commission right now that’s having any affect on anything.”
Caldwell’s three commission appointees, all retired judges, have been doing his bidding, Carlisle suggested. “We need somebody like Totto, someone with integrity, to be able to move forward.”
The mayor denied providing any agenda to his commission appointees, and noted that “a majority of the members were appointed by Peter.” Decisions that have been made about the commission’s leadership and staffing are being made jointly by Carlisle and Caldwell appointees, the incumbent said.
“There is a commission that is strong and independent,” Caldwell said. “To somehow imply that they are being told what to do is an insult, an insult to them.”
Djou, questioned by Huff, acknowledged he had no evidence that Caldwell had taken steps to stifle Totto or have him removed. However, he said, “ this a remarkable amount of coincidence.”
As for the luau referenced by Carlisle, Caldwell said that Totto ultimately concluded that there had been no wrongdoing.
The February 2013 luau was an inaugural celebration funded by Caldwell supporters through a transitional team consisting of influential corporations, labor unions and individuals. Attendees were also charged a minimum of $25 to attend the event at Moanalua Gardens.
An Ethics Commission opinion drafted by Totto said the transitional team should have filed gift reports, but otherwise committed no violations. The report, however, made it clear that such transitional teams should make donor lists public and take other steps to avoid “pay-for-play concerns.” Caldwell’s campaign did not disclose a list of donors until it was requested by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and other media.
The team collected $381,000 in private contributions — $145,000 of which was used to pay for the luau. (Leftover money was used to pay for other city administration expenses.)
Caldwell said similar transitional teams were set up by previous mayors in the same fashion.
As with four other previous mayoral forums or debates, a good portion of the Insights forum was devoted to the city’s controversial $8 billion rail project. For the first time, the candidates were pressed to say how they would fund operations and maintenance of the rail service.
All three said that, as with TheBus and HandiVan, they expect rail O&M to be subsidized largely by property taxes. Djou said he would not raise property tax rates to pay for operations but provided no details on other means it could be funded. Caldwell and Carlisle both said that they don’t think property tax rate hikes would be necessary, anticipating a dramatic increase in the home inventory and an upswing in property values.
To see the entire forum, go to pbshawaii.org.
The last, live televised debate before the Aug. 13 primary is 7 p.m. tonight on KGMB co-sponsored by Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.