Public opposition to Gov. David Ige’s nominations to the powerful board that administers the state’s water code is mounting ahead of a key legislative hearing Wednesday.
An online petition against longtime sugar-plantation boss William Balfour’s appointment to another four-year term on the Commission on Water Resource Management has garnered more than 1,200 signatures since the governor quietly sent his name to the Senate for confirmation.
Emails are flying between environmental groups and others, calling on people to urge the Water and Land Committee, chaired by Sen. Laura Thielen, to reject Balfour because they think he has developers’ interests more at heart than the resources the commission is bound to protect.
There’s particular concern over Balfour voting in 2013 to deny the National Parks Service’s petition to designate the Keauhou Aquifer on Big Island for protection without giving the NPS the chance to present any evidence to the commission, said Steve Holmes, Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter conservation chair, in his testimony on the nomination.
There’s also concern over who was not appointed.
Ige has only asked Denise Antolini, a highly regarded University of Hawaii dean and environmental law expert, to stay on until June 30. She has served on the commission as an interim appointee since Oct. 29.
“It’s puzzling why the governor would nominate someone that the Supreme Court has already explained doesn’t have the public interest element of the water code at heart — especially when the other candidate has made a career out of litigating the water code,” said Marti Townsend, executive director of The Outdoor Circle.
Holmes said Balfour in 2010 rejected the findings of a hearing officer and voted to return less water to streams than recommended — a decision reversed by the Supreme Court.
And later that year, Holmes said, Balfour voted to deny taro farmers the right to a contested case hearing in their efforts to restore water to streams in East Maui — a decision reversed by appellate courts.
Balfour, who graduated from Punahou in 1950, worked at American Factors for nearly 40 years, retiring as president and manager. He was also a consultant for Monsanto for two years and headed Honolulu’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“The governor’s goal is to appoint a diverse group of commissioners representing all viewpoints, to come up with collaborative decisions on planning, regulating, conserving and monitoring this precious resource,” Jodi Leong, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement Monday.
Antolini said she’s grateful that the governor allowed her to finish out her term.
“I respect the governor’s decision to pick whoever he wants from the short list,” she said. “I would’ve liked to have continued to serve but it wasn’t in the cards.”
There were similar concerns over Ige’s appointments to the Land Use Commission, specifically interim member Jonathan Scheuer. His name wasn’t among those sent to the Senate last week for confirmation but it turns out that was just a mistake.
In reviewing close to 200 nominations for various positions, Leong said Scheuer’s name was accidentally left off the list of those sent to the Senate. That error has since been corrected and he’s being recommended to serve a full term.
Scheuer is the former land management director for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and runs a consulting company to help clients resolve conflicts over natural resources.
Ige’s other nominees to the Land Use Commission are Arnold Wong, Diana Van De Car, Kent Hiranaga, Linda Estes and Aulani Wilhelm. However, Thielen said Monday she understands the nominations of Wilhelm and Van De Car are going to be withdrawn; the governor’s office was unable to confirm this.
Wong and Hiranaga are currently serving as interim appointments made by former Gov. Neil Abercrombie last August; the other three would be new. Abercrombie made the appointments after five LUC members and one CWRM member quit in July over a new state law requiring the release of their financial disclosure statements.
Thielen has set a hearing for the nominations to both commissions at 2:45 p.m., Wednesday, at the Capitol. She said Scheuer’s nomination would likely be heard Friday.
The committee recommends how the full Senate should vote. The hearing is also an opportunity for members of the public to testify and for the committee to question the nominees.
With the joint House-Senate conference committee process set to start April 20, lawmakers are working to wrap up all the confirmations this week — at least getting them through the committee level and on to the full Senate.
Thielen, who was head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources under former Gov. Linda Lingle, has served with Balfour before on the Commission on Water Resource Management and expects him to have substantive answers to questions on Wednesday.
“Whether people agree with him or not is another matter,” Thielen said, noting that the concerns she’s heard about Balfour seem more about his overall philosophy than experience.
That’s a key distinction from the criticism over Carleton Ching, who was Ige’s pick to head the DLNR until he reluctantly withdrew the nomination last month amid a groundswell of opposition and lack of support from the Senate to confirm him.
A dominant theme in the opposition to Ching, a Castle & Cooke development lobbyist, was concern that he was unqualified to lead a department of 900 people and 10 divisions charged with protecting and managing the state’s natural and cultural resources.
Opposition to Balfour has not reached the level of Ching. But the public has only known about the appointment for a few days.
There was no press conference or public announcement about the governor’s appointments to the Land Use and Water Resource Management commissions.
The names surfaced Thursday after the Legislature posted the governor’s messages to the Senate on its website — even though most of the nominations, including Balfour’s, were sent in letters dated April 2.
Ige held a press conference last Tuesday to announce his choice of Suzanne Case to lead the DLNR instead of Ching. The appointment is expected to sail through the Senate, given her record of protecting the environment as director of The Nature Conservancy Hawaii.
As for the Keauhou Aquifer decision, Ige said it is Hawaii County’s kuleana, according to a West Hawaii Today report last week.
“It is the county’s responsibility to manage the water resources until use approaches sustainable yield,” the newspaper reported Ige as saying. “The water commission tells me we are not even halfway there.”
The commission is not expected to make a final decision on Keauhou until June at the earliest.
Thielen said she’d like to see the LUC and CWRM return to their roots of longterm planning instead of being so reactionary to development proposals.
The LUC literally shapes the future of the islands, determining if land should be designated agricultural, rural, conservation or urban. It also gives approval to major projects, such as the 12,000-home Hoopili development in Kapolei.
The CWRM has a legislative mandate to ensure the state is making sustainable longterm decisions regarding water and not overlooking the purpose water serves in its natural state as a valid “use,” Thielen said.
“It’s an underappreciated commission,” she said. “It’s important to have people on that commission that can see the long term — almost a geologic long term, considering the changing weather patterns and land uses.”
Thielen said it’s crucial that members on both commissions understand how much things have changed over the past 100 years and the direction Hawaii needs to take going forward.
Balfour says in his written testimony on his nomination that the role of the commission member is “to be a realistic and positive decision-maker in the management of the water resources of the State of Hawaii.”
He said he is qualified because of his more than 47-year work history encompassing management of water systems on Oahu, Maui and Kauai. He notes his skills, expertise and knowledge in water management, cultivation practices, resource management and conservation practices.
“I possess a genuine appreciation of water, its value and its fragile state in many areas of Hawaii,” Balfour wrote in the resume he sent when applying for the appointment.
“Water has many competing demands and requires thoughtful and rational management to which I believe I can contribute,” he said.
Balfour, who previously served on the commission from August 2009 to June 2014, is currently working with the Honolulu Zoo on maintenance and infrastructure needed for 2015 accreditation.
In a Feb. 25 letter seeking the appointment, Balfour said he’s the right man for the volunteer job because of his experience in the sugar industry, institutional knowledge and overall awareness of the issues that need to be addressed.
But Townsend said Balfour’s wealth of experience has often demonstrated that he’s not in sync with case law and most people in Hawaii.
“We need to ensure native culture and native ecosystems thrive,” she said. “We’ve made a public policy decision to favor those water uses over development.”