The Agribusiness Development Corporation has ousted its longtime executive director and hired a new one in a surprise move that some called a power play staged by newer board members.
In a closed-door session on Wednesday, the board voted six-to-five to replace Alfredo Lee, who led the corporation for 12 years and had received positive reviews. Jimmy Nakatani, the deputy director of the Department of Agriculture, was chosen as his successor.
The corporation, which lawmakers have criticized as ineffective, has broad powers over leasing state agricultural lands and shoring up the water infrastructure from the old sugar plantations for farming.
But board member David Rietow told Civil Beat that Lee was forced out by newer board members and that the hiring of the new director was rigged. He called what had happened “underhanded and dictatorial.”
Six of the corporation’s 11 board members are new. Three were appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. The heads of three other departments also sit on the board: The Department of Business, Economic Development Tourism, the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture. All of them were also appointed by the governor.
At issue is how Nakatani got the job. To find Lee’s replacement, a three-member search committee posted the job opening for nine days last month on the government employment website. It was not advertised in any other outlet, board members said. Nakatani was the sole applicant.
The situation has attracted the attention of the Board of Agriculture, which oversees the corporation. Three members attended Wednesday’s meeting, including Alan Gotlieb who told Civil Beat that he was disturbed that the selection committee didn’t extend its search to find more applicants.
Lee told Civil Beat that he resigned from his position effective at the end of the year and is currently looking for a new job.
“I don’t want to say it was to spend more time with my family,” he joked.
He said he was asked to resign by Scott Enright, who has been chair of the board for about two months.
Enright said that he asked Lee to resign because the corporation needed “catalytic leadership.”
“Everyone likes Alfred Lee personally, including me,” he said. “That’s not the question – if you’re looking for change that’s what you do.”
Enright disputed that there was anything wrong with the selection process and that the closed-door vote was called so that board members could freely express their views.
During the public portion of the meeting, the board went into closed-door session to discuss “personnel matters,” without any mention that there would be a vote.
“It was my intention to hear all the voices,” Enright said. “And there were voices in the room that wouldn’t have been heard if it [was in public.]”
Robert Osgood, a board member who voted against Nakatani’s appointment, said the way the search was conducted “made it look like it was a political appointment, as opposed to a corporate search.”
He said he didn’t know if the vote could be challenged because of how the hiring took place, but he was confident that Nakatani would make a good director.
“I’m not opposed to the person, but to the process,” he said.
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