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Hermina Morita, who was tapped by Gov. Neil Abercrombie three years ago to lead the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, won’t be nominated for a second term, according to the senator who chairs the committee that oversees the commission.
Sen. Roz Baker, who heads the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, told Civil Beat Tuesday that she asked to meet with the governor after hearing reports that Morita wouldn’t be reappointed, but he refused.
“He didn’t give me the courtesy of a meeting,” she said. “His staff came down and told me that Mina wouldn’t be reappointed.”
Abercrombie spokesman Justin Fujioka said Tuesday Morita’s reappointment is still “under review.”
The “governor has not made a decision on this matter,” he said by email.
But Baker said Abercrombie’s staff informed her last week that the governor had decided to let Morita go.
And Morita also says she likely won’t be reappointed.
“While I acknowledge the governor’s prerogative to appoint members of the commission, I am disappointed that I may not be considered for reappointment,” she said in a text message to Civil Beat late Tuesday. “Since becoming the chair in March 2011, my mission has been to build a capable, knowledgable, fair and independent PUC to serve the public interest. Hawaii’s ratepayers and the utilities that the PUC regulates deserve no less.”
Questions about Morita’s reappointment began swirling as early as last month, when Henry Curtis, executive director of Life on the Land, wrote that the governor would not be reappointing her on his blog, Ililani Media.
Civil Beat spoke with several energy industry representatives who also said Morita won’t be reappointed when her term ends in June.
Abercrombie named Morita to chair the PUC in 2011, a decision that garnered approval from Hawaii’s clean energy sector. She was overwhelmingly confirmed by the Hawaii Senate on a 24-1 vote after testimony from renewable energy companies and advocacy groups, as well as Hawaiian Electric Co., praising her experience.
A former legislator, she chaired the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee from 1999 until taking the job at the commission. She is currently up for another six-year term.
Curtis, a longtime energy sector observer and activist, suggests Abercrombie isn’t happy with the way energy decisions coming out of the PUC have been going.
“The governor has decided that the PUC isn’t toeing the line sufficiently,” Curtis wrote in his article. He said recent PUC decisions regarding a Big Island biofuel contract and delays in pushing forward Abercrombie’s inter-island cable plan were factors.
Within the last week, email and Facebook petitions have urged the governor to reappoint Morita, whose term is up at the end of June.
“She is well respected by everyone for her honesty, integrity and staunch support of the ratepayers of Hawaii,” Ed Wagner, an Oahu resident who is suing HECO, wrote in an email that was distributed to dozens of state lawmakers and reporters.
Morita’s appointment — to finish out the term of former PUC commissioner Les Kondo — was widely seen as a boost to the state’s efforts to reduce Hawaii’s reliance on imported oil, a theme of the governor’s 2010 election campaign.
“Hawaii has made good progress addressing energy issues, and Rep. Morita has been instrumental as one of the key lawmakers in making that happen,” Abercrombie said in a press release announcing her 2011 appointment. “She is clearly committed to advancing clean energy, and she will bring credibility, knowledge and leadership to improve the Public Utilities Commission.”
But people involved in energy policy have said privately that the governor has been frustrated by the PUC’s slow pace in pushing forward his energy agenda. Some have also wondered whether Morita is qualified to tackle the increasingly complicated technical and financial issues associated with Hawaii’s energy policy.
Meanwhile, some of the PUC’s decisions have angered energy developers, some of whom are close to the governor.
The PUC twice rejected a contract from Aina Koa Pono to develop a biofuel plant in the Kau region of the Big Island, calling the price of the fuel too costly for Hawaii ratepayers.
William Kaneko, who chairs Abercrombie’s re-election campaign, is a former lobbyist for Aina Koa Pono.
Baker said that she believes the PUC’s rejection of the contract was a key reason in the governor’s decision not to reappoint Morita. She said the PUC decision was sound.
“It was the right decision,” she said. “It was an unproven technology that was going to cost the ratepayers a lot of money.”
She added that it was not the role of the PUC to “do the governor’s bidding.”
The PUC has also been slow in pushing forward an inter-island cable project that’s supposed to help the state integrate increasing amounts of renewable energy into the islands’ isolated electric grids.
Wind and solar energy developers, as well as cable companies, have been waiting for nearly three years to bid on the project.
But PUC decisions under Morita’s leadership have also been praised for refocusing attention on lowering consumer electricity bills, which are three times the national average, confronting thorny regulatory issues and taking a more sophisticated approach to the state’s long-term energy needs.
The three-member commission, which also includes Mike Champley and Lorraine Akiba, has also taken what clean energy advocates say is a much more aggressive stance toward HECO, which owns the electric utilities on all of the islands except for Kauai.
The PUC has pressured the utility to begin retiring its old oil-fired generators as more renewable energy comes on line and has insisted that the utility pursue clean energy projects that lower electricity bills.
Jeff Mikulina, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, declined to comment on issues surrounding Morita’s reappointment. But he stressed that being chair of the PUC is a difficult job that involves not just regulating energy companies, but a host of other utilities, including telecommunications and transportation companies.
“Not only are you the chief policymaker for the PUC, but you are also the executive officer,” he said.
“It’s a very challenging job, especially when you have no resources and staff are abandoning you for higher salaries.”
Fujioka, the governor’s spokesman, declined to comment on whether Abercrombie has been unhappy with aspects of Morita’s leadership.
Baker says she’s disappointed in the decision and called it “ill-advised.”
“I think Mina has done an excellent job,” she said.