HILO — Honesty may be said to be the best policy, but it’s not a policy the County Council, or the Board of Ethics, seems eager to see set in law.
After a summer of discussion, postponement and amendment, the council, by a 5-3 vote, has given grudging support to a bill adding language to the ethics code that “officers and employees shall provide accurate and factual information to the public, including identification of any referenced authority, to the best of each officer’s or employee’s abilities and knowledge.”
That’s a change from the original Bill 160 sponsored by Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara that would have stated, “officers and employees should be truthful.”
But even the new language wasn’t enough to win over the Ethics Board, which on Tuesday batted the issue back to the council with a letter stating the change is a policy matter best left to the County Council, adding that any change in the law should come with clear definitions to assist the Ethics Board in interpreting the wording of the code.
“You may honestly believe something to be factual and accurate when it is not accurate,” said board Vice Chairman Ken Goodenow. “I think it’s opening up a Pandora’s box.”
The board deadlocked on agreeing to the language by a 2-2 vote, a negative vote under the rules. A subsequent 3-1 vote agreed to the letter instead.
“This is a policy call, so I’m not going to go there,” Goodenow said.
Voting no to the letter was board member Nan Sumner-Mack, who said it’s not too much to ask public employees to be accurate.
“I think accuracy is very important, and as an ethics advisory board, I think accuracy is an ethical matter,” Sumner-Mack said. “I really think accuracy is a matter of honesty in some fashion.”
O’Hara, who amended the bill to garner support from council colleagues, said she introduced it in response to constituents’ concerns.
One of those constituents, Rob Tucker, in January filed a complaint against the Ethics Board, saying it wasn’t responsive to two complaints he filed in 2016 against the county Building Division. He subsequently withdrew the complaint after the board said it would look at revising the ethics code.
Tucker’s original complaints were based on what he saw as preferential treatment for some permit applicants while his permit applications languished in the system.
O’Hara doesn’t think it’s overly burdensome to require offices and employees to provide accurate and factual information to the public.
“That’s something I think we would all like to see,” O’Hara told council members last week.
On the opposing side of the 5-3 vote were Hilo Council members Aaron Chung and Sue Lee Loy, along with Kohala Councilman Tim Richards. Chung said the language would be better placed in a code of conduct, not county law. Lee Loy said it should be left up to the Charter Commission.
The bill is scheduled to make its final appearance next week.
In an unrelated action, the board agreed to send a separate letter to the council suggesting it add wording that the public should be treated “in a dignified manner.”