June-July 1991 Home   Newsletters

August 1991

September 1991

Honolulu City Council Districts
Arguments for and against Limiting Terms of Council Members
Arguments for and against the Different Electoral Systems
Environment and Natural Resources
Conflict of Interest and Excusal from Voting
Testimony at Public Hearing
Uncharted Realm of Term Limitation (Jeffrey L. Katz)
Consensus Meeting
Golf Course Development Policies Workshop
Teamsters Vote Count

Conflict of Interest and Excusal from Voting

This issue is on the agenda for our Consensus Meeting on Sept. 28. As defined in Model State Conflict of Interest and Financial Disclosure Law published by the National Municipal League, a conflict exists when a member of the Legislature (or Council) ..."required to take an action in the discharge of his official duties that may cause financial benefit or detriment to him, a member of his household or a business with which he is associated, which is distinguishable from the effects of such action on the public generally or a broad segment of the public..." Member of household is defined as ..."individuals whose financial affairs are likely to be best known to the official and who, because of ties of blood or affection the official is most likely to want to benefit financially."

Should council members abstain from voting on an ordinance or resolution when a conflict of interest exists? Should it be a voluntary or a mandatory abstention? What degree of conflict would be considered substantial enough to warrant abstention, and who would be the judge? Is a written disclosure of conflict sufficient, or should there also be oral disclosure be-fore the vote?

This issue has been debated on the Council floor. Resolutions to amend council rules on this matter or to amend the charter have been introduced and defeated. One resolution would have submitted an amendment to the charter to the voters which would have prohibited council members from voting on any matter in which they have a financial interest. A resolution by Council Member Mirikitani to amend council rules to allow a council member to abstain from voting when he/she has a conflict of interest was defeated. The council member would not have been required to abstain, and a written disclosure would have been necessary. Council Member Felix, who voted against the resolution, has come up with another which is essentially the same as the Mirikitani's resolution with the addition of oral disclosure. However, to put this issue on the committee agenda despite requests by the Ethics Commission and public interest groups.

Ian Lind, editor and publisher of Hawaii Monitor, and a longtime public interest activist, spoke to the League Charter Review Committee on this and other ethics issues. He favors the excusing of council members from voting where there is a substantial conflict of interest.

And since the conflict would not apply when the financial gain is accrued by members of a large group or a class of people as would be the case of the issue of lease rent caps for condominiums or subsidy of bus fares, he thinks the worst-case scenario of too many council members abstaining vote on any particular ordinance or resolution is highly unlikely.

The Model State Conflict of Interest and Financial Disclosure Law published by the National Municipal League does not require-legislators to abstain from voting when conflict exists through a written disclosure is required. The legislator may request that he be ex-cused from voting on an issue, but no legislator may be prohibited from voting. As the commentary on this section of model law explains, "Disqualifications of state legis-lators deprive their constituents of representation. To require a legislator to disqualify himself, and in effect to prohibit him from voting when he finds himself in a conflict of interest, or to penalize him for voting in such a situation, would probably be an unconstitutional interference with the legislative process..."

Under present Council rules the Chair decides whether its members with a conflict should/should not vote. However, Chair Morgado requires all his fellow members to vote whether there is a conflict or not. Mirikitani's resolution would have placed the responsibility on each member to decide, to abstain, or to vote.

If oral as well as written disclosure were made a part of the process, it would enable the public to judge whether a member's abstention is based on real and substantial conflict and not some frivolous reason. the problem with the requirement for only written disclosure is that, while the information is available in the City Clerk office only a very few members of the public would take the time or trouble to avail themselves of that information.

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