It wasn’t smooth, but he made it.

Despite some objections from, surprisingly, the Native Hawaiian community, interim Department of Land and Natural Resources Director William Aila Jr. took a key step toward confirmation Saturday when the Senate Committee on Water, Land and Housing unanimously recommended that the full chamber consent to his appointment.

“I’ll be calling on each and every one of you at some point,” Aila told supporters assembled outside of Conference Room 225 after the hearing. “I appreciate any kind of honest, constructive criticism because that’s how we get better. … Hopefully we can move this department and this state into some new directions of collaboration.”

View Civil Beat’s videos of Aila celebrating and speaking with supporters:

With the room packed and overflow supporters watching on closed-circuit television next door, citizen after citizen took to the microphone for nearly two hours to sing Aila’s praises. Some wore white T-shirts sporting Aila’s name, the slogan “pono for the aina” (“righteousness for the land”) and a checked box. They could have easily been leftovers from Aila’s run for governor in 2006, but one supporter said they were custom-made for Saturday’s hearing.

On Friday, Water, Land and Housing Chair Donovan Dela Cruz told Civil Beat that overwhelmingly positive1 testimony [pdf] showed the committee that Aila is “dedicated to the community, he wants to make a difference, he’s passionate about the department.”

But some offered their support with “deep” or “grave” reservations.

Those who shared their concerns Saturday — including the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs — said they were unhappy with Aila’s stance on Senate Bill 23, which would establish an indigenous aha kiole advisory commission placed within DLNR to advise the governor and the Legislature on all land and resource management matters. Aila testified [pdf] on behalf of DLNR that the bill “would conflict with the statutory responsibilities of both the Board of Land and Natural Resources and the Commission on Water Resource Management.”

The Water, Land and Housing and Hawaiian Affairs committees heard testimony on the bill earlier Saturday and deferred decision-making until next week, a clerk said.

Aila told Civil Beat after the vote that a big part of his job will be working with Native Hawaiians to find a common path forward.

“You see how fickle the Native Hawaiian community can be,” he said, referring to those who were displeased with his stance on SB23. He said because the movement is always evolving, growing and changing, there will be differences of opinion.

“I’m held to a higher standard because I’m Native Hawaiian,” he said. “I can agree with these folks on a personal level … but I’m not William Aila now, I’m the chair. … That office has a different set of responsibilities.”

Asked if juggling personal and professional responsibilities was difficult, Aila said: “At its simplest level, it’s tricky. At its deepest level, it causes me a great deal of internal conflict.”

Aila was appointed in late November by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to take over one of the state’s most visible and important departments. Though he had been among the names floated by insiders in the days before the announcement, Aila — who has for years been a vocal Native Hawaiian activist — was perhaps Abercrombie’s most radical appointment.

In his two-plus months as interim director, though, Aila steered clear of old battles. He teamed up with the military with which he had tangled over Makua Valley, and allowed a set of proposed conservation land rule changes to move forward.

Check out Civil Beat’s slideshow:

The Senate committee took it easy on the nominee. Republican Sam Slom asked Aila to state his priorities, and then in a separate question, the three things he’d change if he had his “druthers.” Sen. Jill Tokuda asked questions about human resources and infrastructure improvements that Aila brushed off with platitudes.

Dela Cruz, who told Civil Beat Friday that he had a list of questions ready, stepped out to chair another hearing and missed the question-and-answer section entirely. He returned just in time to cast his vote after Vice Chair Malama Solomon informed him that Aila had given an inspiring speech and that the committee was satisfied he was qualified for the job. After the 7-0 vote, the crowd broke into applause.

Saturday ended with a round of handshakes, but the morning got off to a rough start for Aila. West Hawaii Today broke the news that Aila continues to hold an active permit to collect aquarium fish, a controversial practice that some say has depleted the population of certain species. Maui County has taken steps to protect aquarium fish near its shores, and the Big Island Council urged state lawmakers last year to do the same.

Earlier this month, Aila testified on behalf of DLNR in opposition to a bill that would have outlawed the aquarium fish trade. In the tesimony [pdf], Aila said Senate Bill 580 would impact about 80 licensed aquarium collectors with an average annual take of nearly $1.5 million.

He said a 10-year DLNR study “suggests that under certain management regimes, aquarium collecting is a viable and sustainable fishery.” On Thursday, the Senate Water, Land and Housing Committee passed an amended version of the measure despite Aila’s objections.

West Hawaii Today reported that Aila has held the aquarium fishing permit since 1976, when the permit rules took effect, and that the department’s Division of Aquatic Resources cited him in June 2009 and again in August 2010 for failing to file a commercial fishing report in a timely fashion. He twice paid a $15 fine, according to the newspaper.

(As longtime Waianae Small Boat Harbormaster, Aila worked under a different sector of DLNR — the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, commonly referred to as DOBOR.)

Aila did not disclose the fact that he’s a permit-holder in his testimony.

Asked about the story after the hearing Saturday, Aila told Civil Beat that he has in fact kept both aquarium and commercial fishing permits, but said he hasn’t aquarium fished for at least five years and hasn’t done any commercial fishing in three or four years. He said the permits allow him to report the resources he’s taken from Hawaii’s waters, which helps DLNR keep track of what resources are available.

“I don’t believe that it interferes with my decision-making as the holder of that office,” he said. “I can handle the testimony objectively and impartially.”

Civil Beat has filed an information request with the department to obtain all permits issued to Aila, any reports filed pursuant to those permits and any violations of those permits.

DISCUSSION: *Should the full Senate confirm William Aila Jr. as the next director of DLNR? Join the conversation.

  1. Dozens of testimonies in support were submitted by leaders of conservation and Native Hawaiian organizations, as well as public officials at various levels of government and throughout the DLNR. Dela Cruz estimated Saturday that there were 195 names on the testimony list. Two items were submitted in opposition. One argued that Aila violated the Sunshine Law and ignored an Office of Information Practices letter. The other anonymously alleged that Aila has used threats and aggressive tactics against those who have disagreed with him at public meetings. An e-mail to the address listed with that testimony asking for further details was not immediately returned, and Dela Cruz said Friday he would not entertain anonymous rumors.

About the Author