The Honolulu Ethics Commission on Friday voted to allow city police officers and other first responders to accept gifts from the public that are considered “tokens of aloha and acts of kindness” for the duration of the new coronavirus outbreak.
The temporary change in ethics guidelines was triggered by the surge in public support for those on the front lines of the battle to stem the outbreak.
The change applies only to police officers, firefighters, paramedics and lifeguards employed by the city, since other first responders are outside the jurisdiction of the panel.
Commission Chairwoman Victoria Marks said an increasing number of news stories have been reporting on the different types of gifts and new programs established to show support for first responders.
Commission Executive Director Jan Yamane distributed copies of articles about the local “Hotels for Heroes” program and McDonald’s nationwide “Thank You meal for First Responders and Healthcare Workers” initiative, among other gestures of gratitude.
Additionally, next week’s Honolulu City Council meeting agenda includes eight resolutions related to COVID-19 gifts of more than $200 made to the city or its agencies, which are allowed with Council approval. The gifts include food and personal protection equipment from businesses, schools and private individuals.
Ethics Commission member David Monk said while the panel has expressed a “zero tolerance” policy on gifts, “the community needs some form in which they can express their aloha” for those who have been providing high-risk public services during the pandemic.
Initially, the commission considered allowing gifts to city employees who enforce city laws or have some other type of discretionary authority. Those people, who include city inspectors, prosecutors or liquor commission employees, are in a category specifically prohibited from accepting any gifts whatsoever.
Other city employees are allowed to accept gifts of up to $200 in value, and sometimes only up to $50, depending on the circumstances, unless “a reasonable person could conclude that the gift is intended to influence or reward the officer or employee in the performance of an official duty.”
At another point during the meeting, commissioners considered a motion to suspend all of the city’s gift policies as they apply to all city employees.
But Commissioner Riki May Amano said she would not support a complete suspension of gift policies. “I think what we all want is to be able to allow the gifts that we’ve been seeing during this period of time,” Amano said.
The displays of gratitude during the pandemic that have occurred nationwide are unprecedented, she said. “It’s not just here in Hawaii but all over the country, they’re delivering pizzas or PPEs, or other kinds of things and it’s totally understandable.”
The commission needs to “fashion a policy that allows this goodwill … in a narrow enough way so that we don’t have anybody taking advantage of it,” Amano said. “You don’t want somebody dropping off pizzas … at the place that gives permits.”
State Ethics Commission Executive Director Daniel Gluck said his panel has not taken up the issue of gifts to state employees during the pandemic, adding he doesn’t feel any changes are likely.
He and his staff, however, “are looking at our enforcement priorities a little bit differently. Things that we might have been looking at as a possible enforcement action a couple of months ago right now may be something that we sort of let go in the spirit of the interesting times we are in right now.”
Friday’s meeting was held with all seven board members and the public attending remotely via teleconference.