UPDATED 9/30/12 9:30 a.m.
Oahu Democrats will meet Saturday to act on a complaint against state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz that could lead to his censure.
The complaint is centered on Dela Cruz’s sponsorship of a controversial, broad-ranging bill addressing planning districts, permitting and fee exemptions and transportation-oriented development (TOD).
But Windward Democrat Lynn Marie Sager and 11 other party members say in their April 30 complaint to the Oahu County Committee (OCC) that SB 2927 “is in direct opposition to our party platform.”
The platform, according to the complaint, states in part that “preservation and restoration of our natural environment is essential” and “we believe in integrated approaches, practices, and support public policies that create and maintain a sustainable way of life in Hawaii.”
The OCC investigative committee that looked into Sager’s complaint agrees that Dela Cruz may have crossed a line — several, in fact.
In a July 24 report, the committee determined that Dela Cruz’s actions “are sufficiently direct, serious or egregious to constitute a violation” of Democratic Party of Hawaii bylaws.
The committee concluded that Dela Cruz should receive a letter of censure from the party — essentially, a strong slap on the wrist that, while less severe than a reprimand or expulsion from the party, still stings.
Dela Cruz told Civil Beat Wednesday that he disagrees with Sager’s allegations. He argues that SB 2927 actually supports sections of the platform that call for economic development, government streamlining and job growth.
He hopes that the complaint will be dismissed and referred Civil Beat to his June 21 letter to OCC Secretary Bixby Ho giving his side of the matter. The letter includes attachments of news articles and legislative testimony favoring SB 2927.
“This is about improving the quality of life of our residents and SB 2927 would have accomplished that objective,” he wrote. “More importantly, these are all tenets which clearly support the Environmental Platform.”
For her part, Sager said she is “very happy” with the investigative committee’s findings and recommendation.
“I started this because I was hearing increasingly from my fellow Democrats wanting to know how to hold elected party members accountable and to find out if the bylaws apply,” she said Wednesday. “I will be satisfied with what the OCC chooses, and I hope they do go with censure.”
The investigation of Oahu Democrats into one of their own comes in the same year that the party has challenged Laura Thielen‘s decision to run for the state Senate as a Democrat shortly after joining it, though her mother is a prominent Republican and Thielen herself worked in Gov. Linda Lingle‘s Cabinet.
Thielen missed an internal party deadline to qualify to run under the party’s banner. This summer, the party also tried to challenge Chris Manabat’s primary election because officials said he did not qualify as a Democrat under party rules.
At issue is whether people who say they are Democrats really are Democrats and adhering to party principles. Both challenges were dropped, and Manabat and Thielen are on the Nov. 6 ballot.
In the case of Dela Cruz, no one is questioning whether he is a Democrat. But his possible party censure comes at a difficult juncture.
As a chief architect of the creation of the Public Land Development Corporation, he has been pilloried by opponents of the agency who argue it has too much power and too little accountability to decide use of state lands.
Dela Cruz also is running for re-election for a seat that he has held for only two years. While he defeated Republican Charles “Bo” Aki by a more than 2-to-1 margin in 2010, Aki is running against him again this year for the District 22 seat that includes Wahiawa, Whitmore Village and Mililani Mauka.
A groundswell of anger over legislation viewed as sacrificing the environment in favor of economic development helped defeat House Majority Leader Pono Chong in the primary.
That said, as influential as the environmental wing of the Democratic Party may be, it is a very big tent and there are many constituencies. Construction trades and labor groups have their own ideas about how legislation can help fast-track projects that could stimulate job growth.
Among those who will be at the Democratic Party’s Ward Warehouse headquarters Saturday is lobbyist John Radcliffe, who told Civil Beat there would be other “longstanding credible Democrats” making the case to dismiss the complaint against Dela Cruz.
Dela Cruz, 39, is a former Honolulu City Council chair. He briefly toyed with running for mayor in 2012 and is seen as a young rising star in the party.
SB 2927 was seen by many critics as belonging to a so-called “dirty dozen” package of bills supported by top Democrats. In an early version, SB 2927 would have even exempted environmental review “as it relates to the use of state or county lands.”
The bill was strongly opposed by the Hawaii Chapter of the Sierra Club (“contrary to smart growth and the aloha spirit”), Hawaii’s Thousand Friends (“makes a mockery of county planning and zoning”), Michelle S. Matson of the Non-Partisan Hawaii Ohana (“the antithesis of all that has gone before in the Greater Public Interest”) and The Outdoor Circle (“an attempt to undermine laws protecting our finite resources and unique environment”).
Also testifying against the bill was Charles Prentiss of the Kailua Neighborhood Board, who wrote, “Why would you take away the public protections that our current rules provide? We count on the Legislature to protect us, not to cancel regulations like George Bush did for Wall Street.”
Prentiss is one of the three authors of the OCC investigative committee report calling for Dela Cruz’s censure — in Dela Cruz’s view, a conflict of interest.
But SB 2927 had plenty of supporters, including Pacific Business News (“rarely do developers in Hawaii get any kind of break when it comes to fees and other requirements”), Hawaii Housing Finance and Decelopment Corporation (“encourages higher density development or redevelopment around bus or rail stations, and reduces urban sprawl”), the Land Use Research Foundation (“includes a number of ideas which could result in reasonable, rational and equitable land use planning”) and the Hawaii Carpenters Union (“the bill will enhance the use by working people (of) mass transit and mass transit hubs of any name”).
SB 2927 appeared poised for passage, having received very little opposition during hearing and floor votes. But in conference committee, political maneuvering by Senate leaders led to the bill being significantly watered down. The bill was ultimately re-referred to committee on the last day of session, killing the measure for good.
If re-elected, Dela Cruz said, he did not know whether he would reintroduce the bill.
“You’ve got to take it one step at a time,” he said. “But I have been a big supporter of public transit.”
The OCC investigative committee, led by Prentiss and party members Ann Freed and Lynne Matusow, carefully reviewed Sager’s complaint, Dela Cruz’s response, party bylaws, SB 2927’s evolution and state and county laws.
The committee’s findings include the following:
• SB 2927 removes major opportunities for public input as well as sufficient time for agency reviews and preparation of conditions on rezonings. This exemption appears to be in direct opposition to the Party Environment Platform, which includes the belief in “increased citizen involvement.” The exemption seriously curtails opportunities for citizen input.
• The Housing Plank also supports the provision of affordable housing. … the Committee found particularly disturbing that the exemption from Honolulu City and County zoning essentially repeals all City and County affordable housing requirements, rules and regulations … as they would apply to TOD projects.
• Paragraph J. addresses the particularly worrisome exemption of indemnity for public officials for their actions related to TOD projects. In addition to a provision in the Environmental Platform provisions in the Government and Political Reform plank are also seriously violated. The DPH Bylaws also specifically includes violations of government ethics rules as basis for a complaint.
The committee recommended censure over reprimand or expulsion “in deference to Senator Dela Cruz’s position as a State senator, his previous years of service to the Democratic Party, and to promote and encourage future respect, cooperation and balance within the ‘big tent’ that is the Democratic Party.”
Dela Cruz told Civil Beat Wednesday that he was not sure what he would do if the OCC censured him. He has the option to appeal the censure to the party’s State Central Committee — as does Sager if her complaint is dismissed.1
“She has a right to complain, but I am surprised at how far it got,” he said. “And I am kind of surprised they are doing this at a time they know Democrats are out there campaigning in districts. But that is their prerogative.”
Aside from censure and re-election, Dela Cruz is also worried about how such complaints might impact lawmakers’ ability to introduce legislation. What if, for example, Dela Cruz was asked by a constituent to introduce a bill that goes against the party platform?
But Sager and the 11 Democrats who signed the complaint made clear their concern in their April 30 letter:
It is our understanding that all Legislators serving in office as Democrats are asked to review our party platform and resolutions before being supported as democratic candidates. It is also our undersanding that while Democratic legislators are as always free to vote their conscience, any legislation they introduce should not be in direct opposition to the party platform.”
You can read that platform here — all 4,115 words.