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I can tell you exactly when Gov. David Ige’s post-election honeymoon ended. It was Friday afternoon, Jan. 23, 2014, less than two months into the new governor’s term, when a news release from the governor’s office announced the selection of Carleton Ching as Ige’s choice to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The various divisions and offices within the sprawling land department face some of the toughest and most politically sensitive issues confronting state government, from identifying and managing the inventory of state owned lands, including ceded lands, to the protection of Hawaiian burials and other cultural and archaeological resources, to shielding sensitive conservation lands from development, regulation of fishing, managing of local harbors, and the list seems to go on and on.
Ching is known as a likable and skilled lobbyist for Castle & Cooke, who played a key role in obtaining regulatory approvals for the controversial 3,500-home Koa Ridge project in Central Oahu. He is also an officer and director of the Land Use Research Foundation, a leading pro-development advocacy group.
Within 48 hours, before much of the public was even aware of Ching’s nomination, most of the environmental organizations in the state had reached a consensus in opposition to Ching’s nomination and were calling on Ige to withdraw the nomination.
The groups cited Ching’s long service as an advocate for development, and the concomitant lack of “demonstrated expertise in managing the cultural and natural resources” of the state.
“Putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop” seemed to sum up their assessment of Ige’s choice.
How this standoff is resolved could go a long way in determining whether Ige’s administration will be able to succeed in fulfilling his campaign promises to be more open, and could have future electoral implications as well.
Four years ago, Neil Abercrombie had similarly just taken office when he announced his plan to create a new state agency tasked with creating public-private partnerships to develop unused, underutilized, or surplus state properties in order to create value and generate income for the cash-strapped public coffers. He quickly introduced legislation to create the Public Land Development Corporation to carry out that mandate, and successfully pushed it through despite growing opposition.
But the legislation that emerged authorized broad exemptions from a laundry list of environmental laws and regulatory requirements, and quickly became seen by environmentalists as dangerous in the extreme.
Environmental groups and their members mobilized and went into battle. The anti-PLDC movement grew over time, generated statewide protests, and left many people permanently disillusioned with and alienated from the Abercrombie administration.
Two years later, the governor admitted defeat and called for dismantling the agency, but it was too late to rebuild ties to an important political constituency. The damage was done, and ultimately contributed to Abercrombie’s huge loss to Ige in the Democratic primary last year.
On its face, naming an executive and lobbyist for a major developer to the post responsible for protecting and preserving natural and cultural resources seemed to many like a provocation, an unexpected “poke in eye with a sharp stick” aimed at conservationists, and they reacted as you might expect. There were expressions of anger and betrayal, along with more measured criticism of the choice.
While that may be an overreaction, it does indicate that there are no environmental activists in the Ige inner circles who would have flagged this as a highly controversial and potentially politically damaging selection, and in addition the administration made no apparent effort to reach out to environmental groups as part of its vetting of the candidate.
“I’m extremely disappointed that Mr. Ching does not have any demonstrated experience in managing an agency this big, or having knowledge of the many natural resource issues he’s going to face as DLNR director.” — Robin Kaye, Lanai resident who recently met with Ching
Cynics attribute this to the power of development interests among Ige’s backers, while others say Ige’s low-budget campaign just never managed to build its grass roots contacts with key constituencies, and so now have few trusted people to consult with when facing tough choices like this. But the jury is still out.
At least one top advisor to Gov. Ige says the strong reaction to Ching’s nomination wasn’t unexpected.
“Was I surprised? Personally, no,” said Robbie Alm, who was part of a small team that screened applications for various posts in the Ige administration.
Alm, who served as director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs under Gov. John Waihee, stepped down as executive vice president of Hawaiian Electric Co. in mid-2013 after more than a decade with the company.
Alm said he could not discuss the selection committee’s deliberations because participants had been required to sign a nondisclosure agreement, but hoped people would look past Ching’s past business ties.
“Whenever you nominate business people for government jobs, you run the risk of people believing that they are the same as the companies they work for,” Alm said Tuesday.
“I had to deal with that for years,” he said. “You can’t have Robbie do this or that because he works for Hawaiian Electric. I accepted years ago that people are going to judge you by who your employer is.”
Alm urged critics to “sit down with him (Ching), rather than dismissing him and assuming he can be judged by what he did for an employer.”
And that’s exactly what’s been happening, it seems. The Ige administration has been quietly inviting activists concerned with environmental and Hawaiian issues to meet with Ching, according to several people who have taken part in the sessions.
There seems to be agreement on at least two things.
First, those I’ve spoken to all say Ching was friendly, personable, open and candid.
“This is why he’s such a good lobbyist,” said one person, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation. “He’s a nice man, he was honest about his shortcomings, and honest about where he’s coming from.”
Lanai resident Robin Kaye agreed.
“I would be hard-pressed to find anything not to like about the guy,” Kaye said.
However, that’s only part of the story, and not the most important part.
“Putting him in charge of the Department of Land and Natural Resources is like handing him a scalpel and asking him to take out your appendix.” — Karen Chun, Sierra Club’s Maui Executive Committee
According to several people who attended a three-hour meeting with Ching held in Wailuku on Saturday, the nominee candidly admitted that there’s an awful lot he doesn’t know.
“He kept saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’” one participant recounted.
Ching said he was not aware of Hawaii’s Public Trust Doctrine, embodied in the state constitution, which requires the state and counties to “conserve and protect Hawaii’s natural beauty and all natural resources,” including land and water. It’s been at the heart of a chain of major court decisions impacting the state’s stewardship of its natural assets.
He was equally unfamiliar with the state water code, or any of the long history of water rights, although as director he would serve as chairman of the State Water Commission.
Instead, he responded with vague references to “moving the needle” and “achieving efficiencies.”
And then there were the football metaphors about changing jerseys, moving to play for the other team, and having to step up your game when you’re playing against your friends.
Despite coming away with high regard for his personal characteristics, those I’ve spoken to were uniformly distressed by his lack of relevant experience, not by his business ties.
“I’m extremely disappointed that Mr. Ching does not have any demonstrated experience in managing an agency this big, or having knowledge of the many natural resource issues he’s going to face as DLNR director,” Kaye said.
Kaye believes Ching’s lack of relevant knowledge and experience should doom his nomination.
“The learning curve he faces is just too steep and would take too long,” Kaye said.
Karen Chun, a Maui activist and officer of the Sierra Club’s Maui Executive Committee, came to the same conclusion.
“Putting him in charge of the Department of Land and Natural Resources is like handing him a scalpel and asking him to take out your appendix. He just doesn’t have the training nor the background to do the job. And it’s going to take more than a crash course to get him up to speed,” Chun wrote on her blog following Saturday’s meeting.
More than 7,000 people have now signed an online petition calling on the state Senate not to confirm Ching.
The nomination has been referred to the Senate Committee on Water and Land, chaired by Sen. Laura Thielen, herself a former DLNR director from 2007 to 2010. No hearings have been scheduled.