The Senate confirmed Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s nominees to the water commission on Tuesday amid rising opposition toward the candidates and concerns about irregularities in the nominating process.
Ted Yamamura was confirmed by a 19-6 vote, and Jonathan Starr by a 22-3 vote.
Groups such as Earthjustice and the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. have said that Yamamura lacks the legal qualifications for the position. They’ve questioned his connections to people involved in water commission decisions, namely large agricultural interests and developers.
Both Yamamura and Starr have defended their qualifications in the past and senators, including Malama Solomon, Donovan Dela Cruz and Pohai Ryan, have supported them.
The commission, which determines the allocation of water resources, is one of the most powerful in the state. Recent fights on Maui over water rights have centered on how much water can be diverted from streams for use by private companies involved in large-scale agricultural operations and land development. Earthjustice, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. have gone to court to contest two rulings by the water commission. One of them — The Na Wai Eha case — is before the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Isaac Moriwake, an attorney with Earthjustice, said the hearing was rushed in an effort to stave off growing criticism.
But Abercrombie spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz rejected that contention.
“It was more of us trying to meet deadlines and trying to fill various boards and commissions,” she said. “There aren’t any kinds of games when it comes to this.”
Earlier this month, testimony before a legislators revealed that the nominating committee only met for 45 minutes when reviewing applicants and didn’t interview any of the candidates.
“I think once people started raising questions and expressed dissatisfaction with the process, ironically those in charge thought it was in their best interest to speed things up even more,” said Moriwake.
Both Sen. Clayton Hee and Sen. Les Ihara told Civil Beat that they had requested Senate leadership delay the confirmation vote.
“I did comment, that what was the rush?” said Hee. “In my own view, when you have controversial issues on a confirmation the public should have every opportunity to weigh in.”
Senate President Shan Tsutsui didn’t return a call for comment.
Opposition to Yamamura’s nomination escalated during the past week, with 26 organizations, including the Environmental Caucus of the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club and Conservation Council of Hawaii, signing on to a statement in opposition to Yamamura’s confirmation.
Yamamura couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
He has been a land appraiser on Maui for 30 years, served on the Maui County Board of Water Supply since 2008 and was a member of the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources for five years.
Criticism over Abercrombie’s nominees to the commission has been brewing for months. Abercrombie appointed Glenn Hong, the president of Young Brother’s to the commission in February. But he quickly stepped down amid criticism that he wasn’t qualified — concerns that he agreed with.
But the subsequent appointment of Starr and Yamamura didn’t quell growing discontent, which boiled over on the Senate floor Tuesday.
As Abercrombie, flanked by Yamamura and Starr, looked down from the chamber’s gallery, several senators delivered sharply worded testimony on why the nominees should not be confirmed.
Hee said that he had known Starr and Yamamura personally for many years, but that after meeting with Yamamura, he didn’t think he should be confirmed.
“After being with Mr. Yamamura, I came away with a strong feeling that he is not qualified,” said Hee. “It doesn’t mean he won’t try hard, but it means he’s not qualified. And I’m saddened by it.”
Ihara said that Yamamura’s experience on the Maui Board of Water Supply, which is primarily an advisory position, did not meet the qualifications specified in law.
“I would consider that as having experience with water use planning, but fail to understand how it qualifies for water use management,” he said.
Hee also objected to Starr’s nomination. He was picked to fill the one seat on the commission that requires extensive experience in Native Hawaiian customary practices. Starr has argued he does meet that test.
“My politics and his politics are in closer alignment than the politics of Yamamura. I think he is a terrific guy. But he is not qualified in my judgment,” said Hee.
Other senators defended the nominees, though there was little discussion about the specific statutory requirement of the positions, or whether the nominees fulfilled them.
Sen. Malama Solomon chastised senators who opposed the nominations and defended Yamamura’s qualifications, pointing out that he was a Vietnam veteran.
“Mr. President, for me as a senator who has gone through numerous advise and consents, you know what I hold as a high criteria to make my decision? Is this person truly a keiki o ka aina? What is his track record?” said Solomon. “Mr. Yamamura is a Vietnam veteran. I don’t have to remind you or those of us on the floor that in those days if you didn’t go to the war you were in prison. He served his country well. He is in numerous community organizations within his own community. He understands the aina.”
Earthjustice and the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. questioned Yamamura’s knowledge of the wai not the aina.
The nominating process was also criticized by both those in favor and against the nominees.
“I do not believe it is appropriate for the nominees to have their names submitted to the governor without at minimum an interview,” said Hee. “Even if it means by conference call, even if it means by Skype or any other technological method for lack of time, funds or effort.”
Alan Murakami, an attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., said that Yamamura’s position raised conflict of interest issues given his client list as a land appraiser.
“Does Yamamura’s current and past financial connections with developers, banks, and major landowners on Maui subject him to challenges and requirements for recusal from decisions on the major water issues on Maui, handicapping his ability to act without violating state ethics laws?” he said by email.