I don’t think it’s been a secret that the subject of civil unions has been widely debated in this state for the past couple of years, let alone the past two decades. And the powerful folks at the Hawaii Business Roundtable are about as plugged in as you can get. So I can’t believe it was a surprise to them that there would be a House vote on the final day of the legislative session that might put a civil unions bill on the governor’s desk.

Yet the group said nothing about the issue until June 4, when its executive committee wrote a letter to Gov. Linda Lingle urging her to veto the civil unions bill and form a commission to develop a recommendation for the state Legislature to consider in 2011.

The letter doesn’t take an overt position against civil unions. But by raising so many red flags about the bill that passed, the letter gives the appearance that the executive committee is opposed to them — but doesn’t want to say so.

If these leaders are really so concerned about the dangers of the civil unions bill, why wouldn’t they hold a news conference and share their thinking with the rest of us? It’s important for the public to be informed about the alleged flaws in the bill.

Here are the members of the group’s executive committee:

  • David Carey, president and CEO, Outrigger Enterprises
  • H. Mitchell D’Olier, president and CEO, Kaneohe Ranch Co.
  • Don Horner, president and CEO, First Hawaiian Bank
  • Allan Landon, chairman & CEO, Bank of Hawaii
  • Constance Lau, president and CEO, Hawaiian Electric Industries
  • Dee Jay Mailer, CEO, Kamehameha Schools
  • Harry Saunders, president, Castle & Cooke Hawaii
  • Arthur A. Ushijima, president & CEO, Queen’s Health Systems
  • Allen Uyeda, president and CEO, First Insurance Co. of Hawaii

I understand why such business people have concerns about legislation that might impact their operations. And of course these executives have the right to communicate their thinking privately to the governor.

But they also have the responsibility to be leaders. They should share their views with their customers and employees and explain why they’re jumping into the issue at the last minute. A four-paragraph private letter doesn’t cut it.

It makes them seem amateurish. They have the resources to hire legions of lawyers who could have fleshed out each concern they raise in their letter. That would have given the public — and the governor — substance to debate and discuss. Instead, their approach gives the impression that they acted in haste at the last minute, without having fully thought through the issues themselves.

Their decision to act this way raises questions about the thinking of other roundtable members. Does the president of the University of Hawaii System really want to be affiliated with a group taking a public position on civil unions? Or Hawaiian Airlines? Or Foodland? I don’t see how that makes sense.

In terms of the specifics of the letter (read Chad Blair‘s article for more), which revealed the letter had been sent, I’ll just deal with the first problem the group says the bill raises: “The law stipulates that the implementation be effective 1/1/2010 which is virtually impossible and raises a number of legal issues,” their letter says.

The Hawaii Attorney General’s Office addressed that issue at the request of one of the sponsors of the civil unions bill, Sen. Les Ihara.

“We advise that H.B. No. 444, H.D. 1, S.D. 1 would not be invalid because its effective date precedes the date that the bill becomes law,” Deputy Attorney General Russell Suzuki wrote on Nov. 25, 2009, with the approval of Attorney General Mark Bennett.

Suzuki did acknowledge that the effective date would create “administrative problems” and potentially other “practical problems,” but you’d think these business leaders would be pretty familiar with dealing with administrative and practical problems in the running of their operations.

They know we don’t live in a perfect world, and that no legislation emerges without flaws. The question anybody must ask is whether on balance a bill is an important step for society.

If the Hawaii Business Roundtable wanted to enter the fray, it should have done so in a way that reflected well on them. That would have meant providing serious research to the governor. Now it just looks like they’re trying to have the last word.

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