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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 2, 2006

City should reopen travel 'gift' records

A recent audit of travel by city executives shines a light into the frequently murky area of public recordkeeping, illuminating how poorly government secrecy serves the public.

Former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, who took a few dozen out-of-state trips during his final year in office, drew most of the auditor's attention because many of the trips were paid by third parties.

Harris in the past has described the trips as gifts unrelated to his official duties as mayor, which under the current law were exempt from reporting requirements. Since the requirements were changed in 2002, officials whose travel is unrelated to their city jobs still can accept such gifts in any amount without filing any reports.

This is a ludicrous provision that does little to ensure tax dollars are working for anyone other than the traveler in question. The City Council needs to close this particular loophole in its ethics code.

It's reasonable for any mayor to expect that they ought to be able to take unofficial travel opportunities without City Council approval. But elected officials are accountable to the public, so if they tap public money or a third-party expense account, the public ought to have access to those records.

In the last half of 2004, Harris left the state on 19 trips, 10 of them paid at least in part by third parties. Harris has defended these trips, saying they included opportunities to speak at "prestigious" events, sharing the success story of Honolulu.

This can be a wholly defensible activity for a sitting mayor, but it can be difficult to divorce such trips from official duties. In the Harris case, invitations extended by benefactors can hardly be considered private gestures of goodwill, unrelated to his public position.

There's nothing wrong with unofficial travel, in theory; the facts of the matter, however, are now under wraps. Unless the record of the trip is left open, there's no way for the public to know what's really going on.