A few hours after this column appears Wednesday morning, the state Senate’s Committee on Water and Land will begin a public hearing to consider the controversial nomination of Carleton Ching to serve as chairperson of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

This is just one of 39 nominations sent to the Senate by Gov. David Ige to fill top posts in executive departments and seats on certain key boards and commissions, all of which are subject to the “advice and consent” of the Senate.

Under the Senate’s procedures, each is marked as a “Governor’s Message,” given a GM number for tracking, and referred to the appropriate standing committee for a public hearing.  Following the hearing, the nomination (with the committee’s recommendation) moves to the floor for a confirmation vote by the full Senate.

Carleton Ching and Nolan Espinda chat outside before Espinda’s senate meeting. 5 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A pair of state department head nominees, Nolan Espinda (Department of Public Safety), left, and Carleton Ching (Department of Land and Natural Resources) chat at the Capitol last week.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s been a pretty straightforward process ending with an up or down vote.

But Ching’s nomination stands out from the other 38 being considered by the Senate in two ways.

First, it has mushroomed into the first major controversy for the first-term governor due to the nominee’s prior position as a lobbyist for Castle & Cooke, a major land developer, and his position on the boards of two trade associations representing development interests.

Second, it has prompted Sen. Laura Thielen, who chairs the Committee on Water and Land, to shake up the Senate’s routine by providing hundreds of testimonies and other documents to the public in advance of Ching’s confirmation hearing.

The latter is a major course change that could, in the end, prove more significant than the eventual outcome of Ching’s confirmation vote.

State Nominations Short on Details

The nomination of a pro-development lobbyist little known outside of development circles immediately created a problem for several of DLNR’s important constituencies, with environmentalists and conservationists at the top of that list.

For them, the immediate question was, “Who is Carleton Ching?” followed by the related question, “What has he done to show that he’s prepared to protect and conserve our natural and cultural resources?”

The governor’s message forwarding Ching’s nomination to the Senate provided no clues to the nominee’s background.

Like all such nominations, it consisted of just a single stock phrase, followed by the nominee’s name and position.

“In accordance with Article V, Section 6 of the Hawai’i State Constitution, I have the honor to submit herewith for your consideration and confirmation, the following nomination,” the brief letter read, followed simply by Ching’s name and the DLNR position.

This flood of public information marks a rather dramatic departure from the way information about other nominees has been handled this year, and in previous years.

Not a bit of additional information accompanied it. There is no biography attached to the governor’s letter as it appears in the database of legislative documents, no resume, and no education, employment or professional history.

There wasn’t anything unusual about this absence of information. It was just part of “the way things have always been done.”

What made it unusual was the keen interest among thousands of people to know more about this particular candidate, his training and experience, and his views on the many matters under the purview of the department.

According to the Senate’s past practice, all information regarding nominees has been considered confidential unless it is submitted as testimony. And it has been the chair’s prerogative to decide when testimony will be posted, although it has rarely, if ever, been posted and available to the public days in advance of a scheduled public hearing.

From the public’s perspective, this lack of information undercuts the invitation to participate in the process. Yes, the Legislature seems to be saying, we really want you to become active citizens and get involved in the process, but not enough to provide the basic information that could inform your actions.

It’s a little-appreciated flaw in the system. It doesn’t become an issue for most nominations, which attract little in the way of public interest, and remain largely insider affairs. But when a particular nomination catches the public’s interest, as this one did, it becomes a problem. An unnecessary one, it would appear.

Will This be the New Normal?

Consider how nominations are handled across the street at Honolulu Hale, our city hall. There the process begins with a Mayor’s Message. For example, Mayor’s Message 22, the recent nomination of Gary Nakata to serve as director of the Department of Community Services, didn’t have much more information than the comparable governor’s messages.

However, it was accompanied by two key attachments. First, there was a nominee/appointee form, which includes the nominee’s age, occupation, employer, a list of self-identified potential conflicts, along with the nominee’s educational and employment history. Also attached, and available online to the public, was the nominee’s full resumé.

The process isn’t perfect, but it’s a world apart from the absence of information provided — or not provided — on most gubernatorial nominees.

There wasn’t anything unusual about this absence of information. It was just part of “the way things have always been done.”

Sen. Thielen, apparently responding to the tenor of the public debate over Ching’s nomination, announced last week that she would be providing the public most information available to her committee in advance of the public confirmation hearing. And she has followed through on that commitment.

By Monday, Ching’s resumé, as well as to his written responses to questions posed earlier by Thielen’s committee, were available to the public on the Legislature’s website. And by Tuesday morning, written testimony submitted by hundreds of individuals and groups in advance of the hearing was also available. All of this information can be found on the status page for Governor’s Message 514 under the heading “Testimony.”

This flood of public information marks a rather dramatic departure from the way information about other nominees has been handled this year, and in previous years.

The question, of course, is whether this will be a one-off departure from standard procedure by a strong committee chair in an unusually controversial case, or eventually lead to a broader move by the Senate to provide increased transparency in the confirmation process.

Thielen could not be reached for comment this week due to the schedule of caucus meetings and extended floor sessions leading up to Thursday’s “first crossover” deadline. 

My own guess is that, in the long run, it’s going to be hard to get this genie back into the bottle. Over time, I suspect Thielen has set the new standard for transparency that future confirmations will be expected to match.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.