Five months after one of its members stepped down, Gov. Neil Abercrombie has yet to fill a vacancy on a seven-member panel charged with administering the State Water Code.

It’s a pretty important job. Under the code, the Commission on Water Resource Management is tasked with the critical responsibility of protecting and enhancing Hawaii’s water resources “through wise and responsible management.”

Yet, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, to which the seven-member commission is attached, has had to advertise three times in 12 months for the position, most recently just last month. On two of those occasions, the deadline for nominations was extended to get a broader pool of applicants.

DLNR is also now seeking two applicants, as the term of a second water commission member is set to expire next summer.

A DLNR official told Civil Beat Wednesday the reason it has taken so long to find candidates is because the Office of the Attorney General raised concerns about the selection application process. The concerns center on whether it was legal for DLNR to extend and re-open the process.

But the delay is raising eyebrows. Abercrombie, after all, has aggressively sought to place his own people on important boards and commissions. At least one ally of the governor has expressed strong interest in the job.

Nominations are due Dec. 16, more than a year after Abercrombie took office.

‘Ke Kahuwai Pono’

The origin of the State Water Code dates to the 1978 Constitutional Convention that made significant changes to how state government was run.

Convention delegates determined that it was the state’s obligation “to protect, control and regulate the use of Hawaii’s water resources for the benefit of its people.” That obligation is spelled out in Article XI, Section 7 of the State Constitution.

The commission’s motto is “Ke Kahuwai Pono” — translated as “the trustee who oversees the rightful sharing of water.”

But, the competition over water has been fierce and includes developers, farmers, environmentalists, the military and Native Hawaiian groups. Battlegrounds have included Oahu’s Waiahole-Waikane dispute that began in the 1970s and, more recently, taro growers taking on Alexander and Baldwin on Maui.

Who sits on the Commission for Water Resource Management can influence those decisions.

Meet the Commission

Commission members serve without pay except for reimbursement of expenses, but state law requires that each water commission member have “substantial experience in the area of water resource management.”

The seven-member commission currently includes two ex-officio members, DLNR Chair William Aila and Department of Health Director Loretta Fuddy. The other five were appointed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle.

Donna Kiyosaki completed her term June 30. Currently a senior vice president with Waimana Enterprises, a development company, Kiyosaki is a former deputy manager and chief engineer on Honolulu’s Board of Water Supply.

Lawrence Miike, a former DOH director, will complete his second term June 30. The other three members are William Balfour, who spent four decades working for Hawaii’s sugar industry; Sumner Erdman, a cattle rancher; and Neal Fujiwara, a former Maui district conservationist.

The Lingle administration advertised for nominations in October and November of 2010.

Abercrombie was sworn in Dec. 6. According to Bill Tam, the DLNR deputy director who works with the water commission, the governor decided to extend the nomination process through December.

In January, he sought more applicants.

“He wanted as big a net as possible for boards and commissions,” said Tam.

On March 24, the DLNR announced that it was extending the nomination period again, this time until April 6, “to provide the broadest range of potential candidates.”

Tam says at least three names were selected from a candidate pool by a nominating committee and sent to the governor in April. But Abercrombie did not send a nominee’s name to the state Senate for confirmation because the attorney general once again expressed concern about the process.

A spokesman for the attorney general said the office declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege. Tam says the names of the nominees are confidential.

By law, two of the nominating committee members are appointed by the governor, one by the Senate president and one by the House speaker. The current committee is comprised of Rebecca Soon and Allen Hoe and Abercrombie appointees Warren Watanabe and Miles Furutani.

On Nov. 1, DLNR announced that it was once again soliciting nominations for the commission vacancy — the third time in a year.

Why did it take so long to re-advertise? Tam said commission staff had been busy, in large part because staffing had been cut from 22 positions to 12 and its budget reduced by 20 percent.

One Applicant’s 11th Try

Abercrombie ally, Jonathan Starr of Maui, applied to be on the water commission in late 2010 under Lingle and again last month. He told Civil Beat he has now applied 11 times for the position.

“When I was a kid I was a water nerd. I spent my vacations looking at water systems, going to water conferences,” said Starr. “To me, water is life — wealth too.”

Starr believes he is qualified to serve. He held a four-year term as a member of the Maui Board of Water Supply and spent five years on the Maui Planning Commission including a spell as its chair.

Starr, a businessman, is also a former chair of the Maui County Democratic Party. He gave $2,500 to Abercrombie’s gubernatorial campaign in 2009 and $3,500 in 2010.

Starr said he has told the governor of his interest in serving on the water commission but denies its about political patronage.

“I think that’s ridiculous,” he said, noting that he has friends on both sides of the political aisle and worked for Lingle when she was Maui mayor. “I help a lot of people in campaigns — some win, some lose. I have a lot of background, so if I am selected I hope it is because I am qualified and have a track record of working hard.”

Abercrombie’s office did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment about Starr or the water commission vacancies.

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