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Nearly eight hours into a Senate committee confirmation hearing on whether to recommend approving the nomination of Carleton Ching to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Sen. Sam Slom lobbed the Castle & Cooke lobbyist a classic interview question: “Why should we hire you?”
“You’ve got to believe I’m the right man for the job,” Ching replied.
Senators may need to take a leap of faith to confirm Ching, Gov. David Ige’s nominee to lead the powerful state land board, after a grueling nine-hour event Wednesday that included a question and answer session that spotlighted Ching’s lack of familiarity with the department.
The governor attended portions of the hearing, testifying at the beginning and returning for the conclusion.
The Senate Committee on Water and Land recessed around 7 p.m. and will pick up again at 1 p.m. Thursday. The decision to continue to a second day is rare for confirmation hearings in the Hawaii Legislature. Regardless of the outcome, the full Senate will vote on the confirmation.
Since his nomination was announced in January, Ching has been under fire from environmentalists and others alarmed by his lack of experience in natural resource conservation and his alignment with development interests.
As the DLNR director, he would oversee a nearly 900-employee department charged with managing 2 million acres of conservation land, 23,000 acres of inland streams, 3 million acres of near-shore ocean waters and 410,000 acres of coral reef. He would also lead the Board of Land and Natural Resources, State Historic Preservation Division and Water Commission.
During Wednesday’s questioning by lawmakers, Ching sought to distance himself from the Land Use Research Foundation, a pro-development lobbying group that’s been criticized by environmentalists for its efforts to weaken land use regulations. Ching had served as a board member of the foundation since 2006 before resigning recently.
Committee members Sens. Brickwood Galuteria and Sam Slom seemed open to Ching, based on the questions they asked and their reactions to his responses. Sens. Gil Riviere, Russell Ruderman and Maile Shimabukuro appeared more critical. After the hearing, Riviere and Sen. Les Ihara declined to comment on the proceedings.
But Sen. Laura Thielen, the committee chair, described Ching’s responses to her questions as “disturbing.”
Still, Ige was optimistic about his nominee’s chances.
“I think he did very well,” the governor told Civil Beat during a recess just before the hearing was adjourned. “There was lots of support for his nomination so we’ll see what happens.”
Throughout the Q&A segment of Wednesday’s hearing that followed public testimony, Ching frequently responded to questions with his own questions, answered in generalities and emphasized the need to find “balance” or the “sweet spot” instead of offering specifics.
When Senate President Donna Mercado Kim — one of the few non-committee members who sat in on the hearing — asked about his position regarding building high rises on beachfronts, Ching described the need for “appropriate” housing choices. Kim followed up: “So, are you for development… ? Would you want to see those buildings built on our oceanfront?”
“For me? I’d rather see my oceanfront,” he said, without elaborating.
When Ruderman asked why the Land Use Research Foundation supported weakening requirements for environmental reviews and eliminating the state Land Use Commission, Ching pleaded ignorance.
“I never understood that LURF was trying to reduce EIS law,” Ching said. In another reply, he said, “I’m not aware of the particular lobbying efforts against the Land Use Commission by LURF.”
Thielen seemed incredulous at Ching’s lack of awareness of LURF’s positions, given that he was on the Board of Directors for nearly a decade and the board meets monthly.
She asked why LURF supported the Public Land Development Corporation, a short-lived state agency that was abolished after widespread criticism of its exemptions from state and county land use regulations.
Ching said he personally didn’t support the PLDC and that he wasn’t monitoring LURF’s lobbying efforts. He described the board as “very macro.”
“The executive director (of LURF) has a lot of latitude in taking positions,” Ching said.
At one point, Kim interrupted the line of questioning to give Ching the opportunity to explain that he doesn’t always agree with LURF’s positions.
But Thielen later returned to the issue, bringing up LURF’s efforts to limit access to public trails. Not satisfied with Ching’s answers, Thielen said she was confused by his lack of awareness.
Much later, she criticized Ching in a Facebook post.
“It seems irresponsible for someone who was on a Board of Directors for nearly a decade to be completely unfamiliar with repeated lobbying positions taken by his employee over that entire period of time,” the senator wrote. “But the most discouraging part to me was that he didn’t understand that the very development permits that he supported eliminating are the exact permits that our Supreme Court ordered the State and counties to make sure that traditional and cultural gathering rights are protected, and public rights to access public beaches are protected.”
In comparison to the grilling by legislators, the morning of public testimony was downright rosy.
Ige testified in support of his nominee, emphasizing that grace, respect and dignity are characteristics of great leaders and that Ching has them.
“There will be differences of opinion about the use and protection of our natural resources,” Ige told the panel. “In the end, it is how the chair conducts himself or herself that really matters.”
Numerous people who formerly worked with Ching spoke in support, lauding his character and his effectiveness. A few Native Hawaiian organizations spoke in support of him.
“He is a Hawaiian and proud of his heritage,” said Antoinette Lee of the Pearl Harbor Hawaiian Civil Club. “He is from here and wants to make a difference for our children, his children, our mo’opuna and people of Hawaii.”
Ching also had robust support from groups representing the development industry, including the Hawaii Construction Alliance, General Contractors Association of Hawaii, Masons Union Local 1, Hawaii Laborers Union Local 368 and the Building Industry Association of Hawaii, on which he served as a board member.
But while much of Wednesday’s verbal testimony was positive, a stack of written testimony opposing Ching’s nomination was double the size of supportive testimony.
David Frankel from the Sierra Club of Hawaii argued that the DLNR needs a leader who can help reverse the trend of bad decisions that are overturned by the Hawaii Supreme Court.
“You don’t hire a baseball player to serve as your football coach, not for Division 1,” Frankel said. “You don’t hire your football coach just based on character.”
Randy Awo said he recently retired after working for the Department of Land and Natural Resources for 27 years. He said he has worked under nine directors and five governors and he has never been this concerned about a nominee.
“If you read our mission statement, his career track has been the polar opposite of our mission,” Awo said.
He discounted the notion that the 7,500 people who signed a petition opposing Ching’s nomination were all environmentalists.
“I think any kind of inference that these people are comprised of environmentalist activists, suggesting that this is locals versus non-locals, is irresponsible,” Awo said. “Clearly this movement is comprised of many people across the state of Hawaii from many communities and representing many ethnicities, as it should be. And while we don’t agree on everything while we’re in the same room, we agree that this is a bad choice.”
Click here to read Ching’s resume, his responses to the Senate questionnaire and the written testimony submitted.