The hotly contested primary race between state Sen. Pohai Ryan and challenger Laura Thielen spilled over into a Kailua Neighborhood Board meeting earlier this month.

It should have been one of those routine community meetings, the kind where the agenda is often reports on sewer lines and the latest police logs.

But on June 7, hot-button issues, strong personalities and political ambitions combined into a volatile mix that saw Ryan clashing with board members and attacking Thielen.

It’s not the first time tempers have flared at a Kailua board meeting. But the ongoing dispute — maybe you’ve seen the headlines — among Hawaii Democrats concerning Thielen’s candidacy surfaced.

The meeting was caught on the Olelo Community Media recording of the meeting — it’s at the 50-minute mark on part two of the recording, right after Honolulu Councilmember Ikaika Anderson speaks.

Ryan, who represents the District 25 seat, first seems perplexed because the microphone she has been given is not turned on.

Once she has sound, Ryan asks the board to give her “the courtesy” of equivalent time to speak as her political opponents had earlier.

Ryan was referring in part to Thielen, who earlier in the meeting told the board about the legal issues involving regulating use of commercial activity on government lands.

Many Kailua residents are concerned about such activity at Kailua Beach, an issue currently before the Honolulu City Council, and Thielen believed she had useful information to share from her experience as the former state Land Board director.

But Ryan seems to have felt Thielen was given too much time to talk.

“I am the incumbent candidate for Senate District 25, and the sitting senator of the district,” she reminds the board, her face flush, her voice slightly agitated.

In the video Ryan says the word “incumbent” so it sounds like “in-cum-BENT,” as if to emphasize the point.

Ryan mainly wants to know why a recent applicant to the board faced questioning that evening — something she says was not the case for board member Leigh Prentiss.

That’s when things get tense.

“Point of order,” someone says.

“Point of order for what?” Ryan responds.

Some back-and-forth follows between Ryan and board members, who are out of camera range during this portion of the exchange. Ryan is told that board members have a right and privilege to ask questions of new applicants, but Ryan says that that was not the case for another board member, who she identifies by name: Leigh Prentiss.

“I’m just curious how you folks pick and choose who gets questions and who doesn’t,” she continues, her left arm waving back and forth.

“Mr. Chairman, point of order, please! This is totally inappropriate,” someone says, to which Ryan responds, “No, it’s not.”

“Yes it is, Pohai!” a woman’s voice says. “Sit down!”

“I will not sit down, I’m sorry, I have the right to be up here during my time,” Ryan replies, defiant.

By this time, the camera quickly pans the board and stops just as a microphone is slammed down, apparently by Prentiss.

“I think your question is out of order,” says board chair Chuck Prentiss — Leigh’s husband — who asks that Ryan get back to delivering her report.

Ryan attempts to do so, talking about a crosswalk on Kalanianaole Highway.

But then she takes a crack at Thielen, noting how “gracious” it is of the Kailua board to ask a Waimanalo resident to address them. She says Thielen “had the power to take care of things” in Kailua during her four years at DLNR, but that didn’t happen.

Somewhere during the exchange an audience member boos Ryan. Someone gasps, too.

“OK, that’s enough,” says another female board member, identified by Ryan as Donna. “You are definitely out of order, Pohai.”

“How’s it going, Donna? I’m not crying, yeah?” Ryan says, a strange smile on her face.

Later in the meeting, after Ryan has left, Leigh Prentiss adresses her fellow board members on the point of personal privilege to apologize for losing her temper.

“She has attacked me personally, publicly, professionally in this community for the past two years, and I am afraid that I just reacted this evening and I really beg your indulgence,” she says.

Reached by Civil Beat this week, Ryan said the exchange at the board really didn’t have much to do with her race against Thielen — something Thielen told Civil Beat as well. It mostly had to do with differences of opinion on an opinionated board.

But it’s clear from the Olelo video that Ryan is upset, and that she does have Thielen on her mind.

By contrast, government reports from Anderson, state Sen. Jill Tokuda and Rep. Chris Lee at the same meeting were calm and uneventful. Tokuda even has a warm exchange with Chuck Prentiss, who praises Tokuda on her likely re-election. (Tokuda is running unopposed.)

Call it a political tempest in a Hawaii teapot. But there is also a history among these folks.

Chuck Prentiss finished second to Ryan in the 2010 primary by less than 300 votes out of more than 10,000 cast.

“It was close, it was tough,” he said. “I went to bed leading and woke up to find out I had lost. But there are no hard feelings. It was a clean campaign.”

Prentiss is also a member of Democratic Party of Hawaii that has made headlines this year for trying to bar Thielen from running as a Democrat. Prentiss declined to comment on matters that were conducted in executive session.

“Nice try,” he said with a laugh.

Meanwhile, rumors have spread about who is supporting who and what kind of deals may have been made. For the record, Thielen said Prentiss is not supporting her campaign, while Prentiss said he’ll put signs for the candidates in his yard but is staying out of the race.

Lurking in the wings is a third Democrat in the primary, Levani Lipton, and Republican Fred Hemmings in the general election. (Hemmings was at the June 7 board meeting.)

Tension At Election Time

Neighborhood boards are places for community members to exchange views and work to fix area problems. While members do not have the power to enact laws, they do influence political and government activity, and elected officials wisely pay attention to board needs.

They can also be hotbeds of antagonism, however, as has sometimes been the case in Makakilo, Kapolei and Ewa, for example.

But then, West Oahu and the Leeward Coast are dealing with some of the most critical issues on Oahu, such as rail, development and the landfill.

Kailua has had its share of controversial issues in recent years, like regulating vacation rentals and allowing big retail stores. And it has its share of strong personalities not shy about voicing their thoughts.

Tom Heinrich, executive secretary for the Honolulu Neighborhood Commission, said he is aware “of the Kailua climate,” as he put it. But he said it needs to be understood in the context of an election cycle.

“I have been on a neighborhood board (Manoa) and chair for awhile, and was a candidate myself for office, so I have been in those various running shoes, if you will,” he said. “By the time you get to an election year, especially a major year like 2012, there will always be some tension there.”

With the Ryan-Thielen race, there are added dimensions because it involves a freshman incumbent and a former executive branch director. Thielen also used to attend Kailua board meetings when she lived in the area, and her mother, Republican Cynthia Thielen, still represents the area in the state House.

(Senate District 25 includes Kailua, Lanikai, Keolu Hills, Waimanalo and part of Hawaii Kai.)

Heinrich said rules prohibiting political activity apply to neighborhood boards, although candidate forums are allowed. But he notes that the Kailua board also has members like Donna Wong of Hawaii’s 1,000 Friends, which has opposed pro-development, anti-environment bills at the Legislature.

Those bills include Senate Bill 2927, the controversial measure regarding rail and fast-tracking transit-oriented development. It has been a point of discussion at board meetings, including on June 7.

Sens. Ryan and Tokuda voted in favor of the bill, which was held in conference committee. Laura and Cynthia Thielen strongly opposed the bill. And its main sponsor, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, is now the subject of possible Democrat Party censure for supporting legislation that may go against party principle — the same party that is considering censuring or expelling Laura Thielen.

Wong downplayed the role of politics on the Kailua Neighborhood Board and said that Ryan was wrong to speak on issues out of order. While she allowed that the line on politics “gets fuzzy” at election time, she said Ryan has “a strong personality.”

Wong also said Thielen — as a “keiki of ka aina for Kailua” — had a right to speak to the board.

“You can just count on tensions being a little higher at election time,” she added.

Still, Ryan feels she has encountered a hostile climate at board meetings, something she believes led the late council member Barbara Marshall to stop attending them when she was in office.

“Kailua is a multidimensional community, and that’s what I love about living in Kailua,” she said. “There are a lot of individual-minded people, and I think they pride themselves of that. … I hope our board will be representative of the multiple views that our community has.”

Chuck Prentiss defends the board, saying that its members get along well and that the community is allowed to adress it. He said it was appropriate for Thielen to speak to the board, and that she requested permission from him before the meeting.

“Her intent was to give us useful information, and it related to our discussion of bills about the beach park,” he said. “I did recognize that there were candidates in the audience. I guess Pohai felt she had to make comment about that.”

Larry Bartley, the board’s vice chair, said he did not view Thielen’s speaking before the board as a campaign pitch.

“I am not sure why Pohai was upset,” he said, adding, “She can be a little hot-tempered.”

Bartley, a Libertarian, agreed that the Kailua Neighborhood Board is caught up in a number of controversial like SB 2927 or the bill on the undersea cable, and that those issues sometimes surface at board meetings.

He also added, with a laugh, “There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes, but I am not going to tell you about that.”

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