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Pay for play? Sustainability fundraising poses questions

A move by Mayor Mitch Roth’s office to raise private donations to host conferences has caused some County Council members consternation about the appearance of “pay for play,” but the second event in the mayor’s series is scheduled later this month after council approval of the money.

The administration has set a $100,000 fundraising goal for a Nov. 13 TEDx event and the council has preliminarily approved a special private contribution fund within the mayor’s office. A TEDx Talk is a showcase for speakers presenting “great, well-formed ideas” in under 18 minutes, according to the nonprofit’s website.

The “Local Insights Grow Global Solutions” TEDx kickoff event features 10 live-streamed speakers on climate change issues, with registrants from 11 different countries. Details and sign-up information is available at www.tedxcountyofhawaii.com .

Sponsor contributions include $10,000 total from two Salesforce employees; $7,000 from Jasen and Sagara Trautwein, Austin, Texas founders of a string of veterinary hospitals; $5,000 each from Hawaiian Electric Co., Guatemala-born American businesswoman Sandy Montenegro/Littlefield, Nicholson Design, AES Solar and Pasha Hawai’i and smaller contributions from 15 others.

In comparison, mayoral candidates are limited to $4,000 in campaign contributions from a single contributor for the entire four-year election cycle.

Finance Director Deanna Sako said previous mayors didn’t actively pursue sponsors for events the county hosted, but sponsors worked directly with the vendors.

“This is the first time we’ve had a mayor’s office this active and going out and trying to find funds to fund these types of programs,” Sako said. “So we’re very appreciative of them getting that.”

Sako said setting up a special private contribution fund isn’t unheard of. The council last year set up a similar account to receive funds from the Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation to purchase firefighting equipment. The special fund expedites the giving and use of the money because each donation doesn’t have to be accepted by the council in a resolution. The administration later submits quarterly reports to the council and the public on how much was received.

Council members agreed the TEDx event and the fundraising are well-intentioned, but they worried about the precedent, especially considering the bill and resolution enabling the funding were fast-tracked to the council without getting a committee hearing first.

Council members were reassured by an explanation by Kate Logan, an executive assistant to the mayor, that the contributors and partners are listed on the county’s website promoting the event.

“When we came into office there was no budget for sustainability initiatives,” Logan said. “This actually provides us an opportunity to move forward with not only events but just building partnerships and collaboration.”

Sako said vendors were selected through procurement practices consistent with state law.

The council Wednesday unanimously approved Bill 76 on first reading, creating the account, and Resolution 253, accepting the $66,200 raised to date for use at the event.

Still, said several council members, it may not be a good look, especially with the mayor’s office the license holder for the event. That’s different from having money go to a department that’s not headed by an elected official, they said.

“That’s kind of dangerous … if it makes reference to the mayors office it’s pretty tricky because it’s almost akin to a campaign contribution,” said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung. “Who can say no when the mayors office or even the council asks for donations?”

“There are often questions when politicians running for office get donations from different groups or companies and I just see we’re opening up a gray area here,” said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas. “I know that everybody wants to make every effort possible to make sure that none of these efforts get tarnished by the potential appearance of impropriety or quid pro quo or special interest groups or for lack of a better term, just greenwashing in general.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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