Proposed rule by Hawaii Tourism Authority board criticized as ‘gag order’

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Nov 8 — The Hawaii Tourism Authority debates a new code of conduct that states that if board members intend to publicly oppose board action, they must resign before doing so.

The proposed code also states that board members must demonstrate professionalism by fostering an environment of “respect, cooperation and collegiality” among board members and not unduly disrupt the functioning of the board in an effective and efficient manner. They should also refrain from interfering in administrative matters that are the responsibility of management, except to monitor results and prohibit actions that conflict with board policy.

The new code of conduct, which expands the 2019 code of conduct to 25 elements instead of 10, is part of an effort to reorganize the ETS after a year of significant legislative review and community retreat.

HTA’s standing administrative committee reviewed the proposed changes on Thursday and recommended that the board keep its original, simpler code of conduct. However, HTA chairman George Kam said the proposed project was still subject to a board vote, which would take place at an upcoming meeting.

Some committee members objected to Article 7 of the draft, which says that a board member must “resign from his post as a board member if he intends to publicly oppose any action.” advice before doing it ”.

David Arakawa, vice president of HTA, raised concerns about fairness and the ability of board members to say publicly when something is wrong.

Arakawa added, “My main concern is, is HTA so paranoid that he wants to offer a gag order to the board members?

HTA board member Kyoko Kimura also expressed concern about the proposed changes. “To be honest, my first impression when I saw him again was, ‘Did I do something wrong?'”

Keith Regan, executive director of HTA, who wrote the draft proposal, said he was motivated by the board’s change management plan and there was no intention to silence board members. HTA’s change management plan is its reorganization from a tourism marketing agency to primarily a destination management agency.

Regan said the wording for post # 7 was inspired by the Society of Actuaries code, which he consulted when researching possible updates to the code of conduct.

“I don’t remember any specific issues that needed to be resolved, just that the update / review of the code of conduct and bylaws was part of the overall change management plan that was adopted by the board.” , Regan told the Star-Advertiser after the meeting. . “This was just one of the many tasks we undertook as part of the overall process.”

Regan called the discussion at the Standing Administrative Committee meeting a “healthy debate,” which he said “ultimately led the committee to determine that the original code of conduct was acceptable and that no changes were needed to the moment”.

HTA began to reorganize its structure and operations over the summer to “become a more efficient destination management organization to achieve our overall goal of Malama Ku’u Home (take care of my beloved home) through regenerative tourism ”.

The reorganization came as HTA grappled with criticism from the legislature that it lacked transparency and accountability, and from the community, which wanted the agency to focus more on destination management than tourism marketing. .

HTA was widely supported when it was founded in 1998 to help the tourism industry weather a crisis seven years after the Japanese bubble burst. But over the years, the agency and the work it does have become increasingly politicized.

Over the past few years, HTA has moved from a singular focus on marketing and branding to a mission that places greater emphasis on natural resources, community and tourism growth through spending by local people. visitors rather than arrivals. But those actions still weren’t enough to appease lawmakers, who cut HTA’s funding to $ 79 million from $ 82 million in 2018.

Last year’s legislature finally took away from HTA the budget and autonomy dedicated to carrying out its own purchases and reduced its budget. State lawmakers cut HTA funding for 2021 to $ 60 million in the last legislative season; although the agency’s budget was ultimately larger due to carry-over funds and Governor David Ige’s decision to allow early distribution of the tax on transient accommodation.

Residents’ sentiment towards tourism weakened throughout the pandemic, while hostility towards tourism began to increase as visitors began to return in greater numbers. The spread of illegal vacation rentals in neighborhoods – a trend HTA has fought in recent years – has only exacerbated the situation.

The ETS’s frequent leadership changes didn’t help either. Current HTA President and CEO John De Fries joined the agency in 2020 following a decision by former HTA President and CEO Chris Tatum to retire after less than two years at the helm.

Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said the board conduct requirements proposed by HTA could be linked to the in-depth, partly unfair, scrutiny that HTA underwent .

“When you are threatened, one way to deal with it is to present a united front. However, the bunker mentality is not the way to reinvent,” said Moore. “It wouldn’t accomplish what they want to accomplish, and it would invite further scrutiny because it’s unusual.”

Moore said that if HTA added a clause that would discourage board members from criticizing the public, it would give critics of HTA the opportunity to use it as an example of a lack of transparency.

“It’s the kind of thing a critical lawmaker would pick up and use as a means to criticize them,” he said.

Keli ‘i Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, said he believes the proposed policy could hamper transparency and solid discussion.

“It is essential that public board members have the freedom to express their views and beliefs, even when those views differ from the majority,” Akina said. “Just because a board member has a dissenting point of view does not necessarily constitute opposition to board or obstruction. Members can voice their differences while respecting and supporting the decision-making power of the board.”

Akina added that “such a policy could discourage those capable of volunteering or accepting to serve on the board.”

Natalie Iwasa, who sits on the board of directors of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit and has served on the board of directors of Hawaii Kai Neighborhood, said she had never heard of such formalized guidelines.

“I asked the Neighborhood Commission to express my point of view and the company’s lawyer regarding HART, and I was always told that everything was fine,” Iwasa said. “You have the right to express your individual opinion as long as you make it clear that this is what you are doing, that it is not representative of the board of directors on which you are a member.”

Former outspoken HART board member Joe Uno called the idea “absurd” and said he wouldn’t want to sit on a board with such a rule.

“It seems so overbearing at first glance that it would have to be rejected if you lived in a democracy,” Uno said. “Councils and council members should have the right to have dissenting opinions on things. I have served on several councils, mostly volunteer councils, and have often had dissenting opinions on things, and it turned out that it made sense for the organization to maybe shift gears. “


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