Why did Gov. Neil Abercrombie choose to ask the members of only five of the more than 150 boards and commissions to resign?

The governor targeted the Board of Land and Natural Resources, the Public Utilities Commission, the Land Use Commission, the Public Housing Authority and the Stadium Authority.

As a spokeswoman for the administration said, it’s because all five have authority over key policy areas that Abercrombie has repeatedly singled out: land, natural resources, energy, housing and the environment.

‘A New Direction’

Abercrombie spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz told Civil Beat Wednesday, “As previously mentioned, the governor chose these boards and commission because they are a high priority at this time. They have direct effect on the things mentioned in the New Day plan and State of the State. We need to move forward in things that obviously have not worked for Hawaii, and we want to head in a new direction.”

Indeed, the governor said in his letters to the 28 board members that the state is in the middle of “challenging times” and that he has a vision for meeting those challenges.

“The Land Board is an important part of our plans to manage the State’s resources and reinvigorate and restore our economy,” Abercrombie wrote in his letters to BLNR members last week. “Those plans may involve a transformation of both the Land Board and of the Department of Land and Natural Resources itself. That is why I am asking for your resignation at this time.”

The letters also say, “I ask this of you because it will give us the maximum flexibility in taking the Department of Land and Natural Resources into the future.”

The letters to the other four boards are identical; only the names of the boards are changed.

The Plan

Land, natural resources, energy, housing and the environment are discussed extensively, if sometimes vaguely, in Abercrombie’s New Day plan.

As Civil Beat has reported, the 43-page plan and subsequent 12-page Recovery and Reinvestment plan offer few concrete details and little explanation on how to pay for it all.

As Stadium Authority member Kenneth Marcus told Civil Beat this week after receiving his letter from the governor, “I read the New Day over, and there is nothing in there about the Stadium. So, I can’t tell you what it is I am not doing.”

The two plans were also released, respectively, before and after the 2010 primary election and were clearly designed to demonstrate that candidate Abercrombie had a platform to run on. By the time he took over the reins of state, however, the growing budget deficit dominated everyone’s agenda.

The State of the State, however, is a much shorter and more pointed document. For example, the governor makes clear that extending the life of the 36-year-old Aloha Stadium is not a priority.

While Abercrombie’s ideas for taxing sodas and pension incomes, increasing the liquor tax and eliminating Medicare Part B reimbursements quickly took center stage — and died — at the Legislature, one should recall that the governor also pushed other policy goals in his first State of the State.

They include his New Day Work Projects to “directly attack unemployment and jumpstart business activity” as well as his goal to house homeless veterans, to promote research and innovation projects like telescopes, to establish a Hawaii Energy Authority “to move the clean energy agenda” and to create jobs.

Many of these ideas were reiterated in a recent speech by Richard Lim, the man Abercrombie chose to run the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Lim focused on land, resources and high-growth industries.

Here’s an excerpt regarding Lim’s view on land:

The State has vast land resources which currently represent a drain on the State’s coffers due to heavy maintenance costs. We cannot afford to pay for adequate upkeep so facilities are in disrepair and, consequently, become underutilized. … By engaging in public-private partnerships, we hope to turn this situation around. We will find private sector partners who are willing to make the requisite investments to renovate and revitalize our underutilized lands.

The Big Five

In this context, the reason for the governor’s desire to control the LUC, the BLNR and the PUC is obvious.

The LUC rules on boundary changes submitted by private landowners, developers and state and county agencies as well as requests for special use permits within agricultural and rural districts.

The PUC regulates utility companies operating in the state and approves rates, tariffs, charges and fees. It also acts on requests for the acquisition, sale, disposition or exchange of utility properties.

The BLNR oversees the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which manages the state’s public lands, water and coastal areas. The board reviews department plans, land leases and conservation district use applications, and hears development plans and permit applications.

Less clear is why the governor wants to run the Housing Authority and the Stadium Authority.

One clue, however, is the governor’s desire to create workforce housing. One of Abercrombie’s achievements as a congressman was to forge public-private relationships to construct military housing on Oahu — although the LUC and BLNR would seem to have far greater sway regarding housing developments.

A second clue is the governor’s policy on eliminating homelessness. Hawaii, as is well known, has a very high cost of living, with housing at the top of the list.

The Housing Authority’s mission is to develop affordable rental and supportive housing, public housing and delivery of housing services to residents. Recall how swiftly the governor dealt with the problem of hot water at Mayor Wright public housing.

Why did the governor pick the Stadium Authority?

His views on the NFL Pro Bowl aside, keep in mind that the stadium sits on 104 acres of prime real estate near military bases, schools, malls, the airport and major thoroughfares. If a rail transit system is ever built, it will stop at the stadium.

In spite of the negative reaction that Abercrombie’s resignation requests have generated, it is a bold move consistent with his policy goals.

More Resignation Requests to Come?

As noted, there are more than 150 state board and commissions.

While the LUC, the PUC and the BLNR are arguably the most powerful, others wield significant influence, too, such as the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Abercrombie has already worked to trim how much money the HTA gets for marketing, and it is the HTA that approves the Pro Bowl contract.

After the fallout over the courtesy resignations the governor may not attempt such a move any time soon.

Some of the 28 members asked to step down have complained publicly and privately that Abercrombie should have reached out directly to them to see whether they would embrace his New Day vision. Others grumble that the move reeks of political patronage.

The New Day plan, by the way, stressed three goals over all others: investing in education and rebuilding the economy, sustaining Hawaii for future generations and restoring public confidence in government.

By attempting to take control of five boards and commissions, Abercrombie may well gain the first two at the expense of the third. But the public may well come around should his ambitious plans succeed.

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