Were it not for dustups on environmental issues, Gov. David Ige’s fledgling service as Hawaii’s CEO would be cruising smoothly along, with nary a bump in the road. But for the second time in less than four months, he’s staked his political fortunes to an inexplicable nominee for a key position whose candidacy is calling into question the governor’s values on the environment.
William Balfour would serve a four-year term on the state Commission on Water Resource Management, one of Hawaii’s most powerful and important boards, if senators vote this week to confirm him. The Senate Water and Land Committee voted 5-2 in support of Balfour’s nomination on Friday, though senators were decidedly unenthusiastic.
Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, who backed the nominee, seemed to sum up the grudging support, saying unless Balfour demonstrated a “lack of moral integrity, (he) should be given the opportunity to serve.” Added Sen. Les Ihara, also a “yes” vote, “ … you would not be my pick, my selection. But I do find that he is qualified.”
Oh, the damning ring of faint praise.
If this were a nomination to the cosmetology board or boxing commission, the former president of three sugar companies and a banana farm might not be the subject of an online petition that had rapidly surpassed 3,800 signatures (and counting) as of this writing. But a lifetime of representing big agricultural interests has imbued Balfour with a mindset that seems to value those interests over natural resource protection or Native Hawaiian cultural practices, as evidenced by his previous service on the water commission.
As Civil Beat’s Nathan Eagle reported recently, Balfour voted in 2013 against the National Park Service’s petition to designate the Keauhou Aquifer on the Big Island for protection while also denying the NPS the opportunity to present evidence in support of its request. Two other votes in 2010 against replenishing stream waters and in opposition to Native Hawaiian interests were both subsequently overturned by courts.
But there is perhaps another significant reason to be concerned about this nominee: His age and what that means for his ability to bring his considerable experience to the table. Americans are living longer, healthier lives than ever before, and Balfour seems to be a fit and able senior. But he is nevertheless 83, and would be 87 at the conclusion of his term.
There’s no question that an older appointee might make significant contributions in a government post. Balfour’s deep professional resume provides him a wealth of experience unlike that of any other nominee or current commissioner. But he had difficulty recalling key parts of that experience under questioning by senators.
In fact, he seemed so poorly prepared that committee chair Sen. Laura Thielen gave him two extra days to bone up and then met with him privately before resuming the confirmation hearing on Friday. The episode reminded us of voters’ rejection last fall of a constitutional amendment that would have raised the mandatory retirement age for Hawaii judges from 70 to 80 — three years younger than Balfour is now.
We admire his commitment and zeal, particularly at an age when most would prefer a bit of well-earned relaxation to resolving unfailingly contentious disputes over the state’s most valuable natural resource. But is he up to four years of demanding service?
For his part, Balfour said he’s fighting for his own confirmation because he believes he can “serve the people of Hawaii very, very well.” We admire his commitment and zeal, particularly at an age when most would prefer a bit of well-earned relaxation to resolving unfailingly contentious disputes over the state’s most valuable natural resource. Still, it is reasonable to question whether he’s up to four years of demanding commission service in an arena where tensions between environmentalists, developers and agricultural interests grow more pronounced each year.
Such questions would be more appropriately asked of Ige. As with the failed nomination of Castle & Cooke lobbyist Carleton Ching to serve as chairperson of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the governor almost seems to have gone out of his way to choose a nominee with obvious problems including a background that seems a virtual stick in the eye for environmentalists.
And, as with Ching, Ige once again has failed to offer much of a reason as to why this guy and why now, putting Balfour forward with a single-sentence nomination letter and nothing more. His silence on both the nominee and the bigger picture was not lost on Thielen, who nevertheless also supported the nominee.
“In the absence of a very clear vision expressed by the administration and this body, the public is left to speculate what the future is, what our intentions are, based on the qualifications of the nominees. And there’s been concern this year,” she said. “I’m not sure if we would be making the same nominations if we were in the place of being the governor. I guess I could say, I’m sure we would probably be making very different ones.”
The full Senate will have the opportunity as early as Tuesday to decide on Balfour. If the committee vote is any indication, senators may well vote yes with a sigh of resignation, hesitant to deal their former legislative colleague two embarrassing confirmation defeats within weeks of one another. We encourage them to require the governor to make another choice, no matter how awkward and painful doing so may be.
At a recent Civil Beat editorial board, Ige conceded he needed to do a better job of communicating. But he has once again come up short in that regard with this head scratcher of a nomination. His greater problem is that legislators and voters form opinions whether he articulates his views or stays quiet. Nominations such as this only feed the perception — fairly or not — that when it comes to environmental matters, he’s agnostic, at best.
That may be a more problematic challenge for him in the long run than simply getting 13 senators to say yes to William Balfour.