The president of Young Brothers is withdrawing from the state water commission a day before he was supposed to show up for his first meeting.
Glenn Hong is the head of Hawaii’s largest shipping company and a prominent member of the local business community. “We are so far out in the middle of the ocean and away from other sources. Without clean water, we are going to be in a lot of trouble,” he told Civil Beat Monday.
But that was before Hong found himself in the middle of a political maelstrom that swept through the environmental community and Native Hawaiian groups who were caught off guard by Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s appointment.
The Commission on Water Resource Management, formed in 1987, has a highly charged political history, and many people have been closely watching the appointment process. The fight over water has been intense among developers, large plantation owners, environmentalists, the military and Native Hawaiian groups.
Because of the historical and legal complexity of the issues involving water rights, the law requires that commissioners, who are in charge of enforcing the state water code, have significant experience with water resource management.
The position has been vacant for more than a year and has been the subject of much speculation and criticism over how Abercrombie has gone about filling it.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees the seven-member board, advertised several times for applicants. In April, at least three names were sent to Abercrombie, but he did not select a nominee and instead sought a bigger pool to choose from. The Attorney General raised concerns about the process last fall.
Hong was selected for the position in January. The governor’s office did not announce his appointment but Hong told Civil Beat he was notified in mid-January.
But the appointment caught the attention of environmental and Native Hawaiian activists this past weekend when they saw an agenda item for the commission’s upcoming meeting that read, “Welcome newly appointed Commission member, Mr. Glenn Wong.”
Numerous people close to the selection process began questioning why Hong was appointed over other highly qualified candidates who had applied for the job. Emails raising alarms about the appointment and the process began flying.
Hong told Civil Beat late Tuesday that he believes he lacks the legal qualifications to serve in the position because he doesn’t have significant experience in water resource management.
“I’m not a hydrologist, I’m not a rancher, I haven’t worked for a plantation, I’m not a farmer and I have not worked for the board of water supply,” he said.
He said that his interest in serving in the non-paid position came from a personal passion to protect the state’s water resources. And he questioned whether it was the “best thing for public policy” to deem developers or large agricultural interests as being qualified for the position, an issue that has been highly contentious among environmental and Native Hawaiian groups.
No one contacted by Civil Beat would talk about how Hong came to be chosen for the position. A four-member nominating committee reviews applicants and makes suggestions to the governor.
Three members of the selection committee, including Rebecca Soon, Warren Watanabe and Miles Furutani did not return Civil Beat’s calls. The fourth, Allen Hoe, declined to provide Civil Beat with any information about the selection process, saying “you are not going to get any more about that from me.”
The governor’s office did not return numerous calls Monday and again on Tuesday asking about what was going on with the appointment. Finally, late Tuesday, Abercrombie’s spokeswoman, Donalyn Dela Cruz, called back to say that she had spoken with Hong about his decision to vacate the post and that she expected that he would submit an official withdrawal letter. She said that the governor’s office had been unaware of any issues surrounding Hong’s appointment.
Still, DLNR had planned to ask the governor early Tuesday morning to reconsider Hong’s appointment. It wasn’t clear whether DLNR had communicated its concerns to the governor’s office.
She said that the process will be reopened. Another position on the commission also will be open at the end of June.
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