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Councilwoman’s use of city funds to pay PR firm is scrutinized

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    Heidi Tsuneyoshi won the election in August to represent the far-flung City Council District 2, which stretches from Mililani Mauka to Kahaluu, including all of the North Shore. She took office in January.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi is using her taxpayer-funded Council contingency account to pay a Honolulu public relations and advertising firm for community and media outreach and marketing.

Since April, Tsuneyoshi has paid Mana Means Inc. — which also worked on her 2018 campaign — $9,462.14 through an $85-an-hour “public relations services” contract, according to a copy of the contract she provided after the Honolulu Star-Advertiser asked about the arrangement.

Tsuneyoshi won election in August to represent the far-flung City Council District 2, which stretches from Mililani Mauka to Kahaluu, including all of the North Shore. She took office in January.

Tsuneyoshi said Friday that the contract allows her to reach her constituents in a more effective and transparent manner and that she’d rather spend her contingency money for that purpose instead of taking business trips outside of Oahu.

“Coming into office, I thought the best use of my funds was to get a lot of information, as much information out to the public as possible, as to what we’re doing here on (the) City Council and the initiatives that we’re doing,” Tsuneyoshi said.

Other agencies, including the mayor’s office and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, spend a great deal of money to inform the public about what they’re doing, she said. Through the Mana Means contract, it’s fair that the public learns about “initiatives that my office and our City Council are working on on our side,” she said.

Mana Means is being paid from an annual contingency allotment provided to each of the nine members, from which they can pay for miscellaneous goods and services tied to their jobs. They have broad discretion over how that money is spent.

The Council voted in June to increase the annual allotment to $25,000 annually per Council member starting July 1. It had been $20,000 annually.

The Council administrative manual, last updated in January 2015, states only that the account “may be used to cover a member’s expenses (within the parameters of all applicable rules, regulations and laws that govern the use of public funds) while conducting official city business duties.”

Each Council member posts electronically how the money is spent on Excel worksheets that are linked under their names on the Council website.

Among the expenses Council members typically listed are travel, gasoline, wireless cell phone service for members and their staff, photocopies, coffee and bottled water, honorary certificates awarded to community members and lei given to the honorees, costs associated with community meetings including space rental fees and refreshments, subscriptions, and materials and postage for newsletters.

Tsuneyoshi, who worked as an aide to former City Councilman Ernie Martin, her predecessor, said she knows others have used their accounts to pay for newsletters, accompanying postage and services that pay for email address lists.

“But if you have more of an engagement on social media and other platforms that people are more connected to now — I felt that’s a better use of the public funds,” she said. “So instead of spending on postage or anything like that, or going on any trips … just really spending to make sure we get the message out.”

Tsuneyoshi said she has not gone on off-island or out-of-state trips using taxpayer money, and likely won’t be doing so.

The $9,462.14 spent on Mana Means from April to June accounts for nearly half of last fiscal year’s allotment. Tsuneyoshi said that’s because the company was setting up its database and because she was in the middle of hot-button issues including a bill giving a small tax break to Oahu property owners and a resolution calling on a forensic audit of HART.

Moving forward, she said she expects the contingency account will pay about $700 a month to Mana Means, or roughly $8,400 annually, she said.

Mana Means worked with Council administrative staff to become a qualified vendor, according to both Tsune-yoshi and the company.

Prior to receiving its city contract, Mana Means had been paid to do public relations for Tsuneyoshi’s Council campaign. As it had during the thick of the campaign, Friends of Heidi Tsuneyoshi from January through April paid Mana Means monthly for “campaign marketing services” described as “directly related to candidate’s campaign” from a low of $1,433.51 to $4,952.87, according to the campaign’s most recent report on file with the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Janet Scheffer, Mana Means president and founder, did not respond to specific questions from the Star-Advertiser.

The company, in a statement, said Tsuneyoshi followed standard city procure- ment procedures and that Mana Means became an approved vendor in order to receive a contract, which provided services “to better allow Honolulu taxpayers to be much better informed as to what is happening in our city and at the Council.”

Mana Means’ statement said Council rules allow use of the contingency fund for expenditures “reasonable and necessary for city business and related to the conduct and official business of the member.”

The statement added: “Also allowed by the guidelines of the ACA (Annual Contingency Allowance) are community meetings, newsletters, fliers, etc., etc., all included by this PR contract, and in this day and age of online and electronic public relations, social media, etc. these activities are all now mostly being done online to save money on printing, postage and they offer a much more robust, engaged and immediate response from the taxpayers.”

Sandy Ma, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause, questioned the use of contingency funds to hire the company.

“Hiring a PR firm to notify constituents of Council activities doesn’t seem to fall within allowable ACA expenses,” Ma said in a statement. “Common Cause Hawaii finds such actions to be suspect if true and should be referred to the city Ethics Commission for investigation and appropriate action. We encourage all Council members to comply with their ethical obligations.”

Ma cited a 2012 audit of the Council contingency fund’s policies and procedures which said the account cannot be used for “‘personal, private, political or other non-City business purposes’.”

Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson said that from the description he’s read of how the money was spent, contingency money was being spent on community outreach and assistance.

“Community outreach assistance is a permissible expense,” he said. “And each Council member is responsible for the oversight and use of their office ACA funds.”

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