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The Senate Water and Land Committee voted Friday to recommend that William Balfour be confirmed to a four-year term on the state Water Commission, despite opposition from environmental and Native Hawaiian organizations.
The vote was 5-2. Sens. Laura Thielen, Brickwood Galuteria, Les Ihara, Sam Slom and Maile Shimabukuro voted in favor of the nomination. Sens. Russell Ruderman and Gil Riviere voted against it.
The nomination goes next to the full Senate for a vote.
Over 3,700 people signed a petition opposing Balfour, about half of the number that signed a petition against Carleton Ching, Gov. David Ige’s failed nominee for the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that twice as many people signed a petition opposing Ching as they did Balfour. In fact, about half as many people signed a petition opposing Ching as they did Balfour.
Opponents said Balfour’s voting record during a past term on the commission favored corporate interests over traditional Native Hawaiian practices and natural resources, particularly in two Maui water decisions that were later overturned by the state Supreme Court.
Thielen, the committee chair, actually served with Balfour for two years on the commission and voted with him on both of the Maui decisions that were overturned. After he enumerated the state’s hierarchy of water rights during the hearing Friday, Thielen said that she trusts Balfour to do a better job considering the law going forward.
“He exhibits the best of his generation,” she said of Balfour, 83. “He is someone I would call unflinchingly honest.”
But while both Ruderman and Riviere said they respect Balfour, they disagreed with Thielen’s assessment.
“His voting record shows a consistent pattern of favoring the interests of corporations at the expense of the health of our ecosystems and at the expense of Native Hawaiian practices, both of which deserve a higher priority under our constitution,” said Ruderman, a senator from the Big Island.
Riviere said he wasn’t satisfied with Balfour’s responses to his questions on Wednesday relating to managing streams.
“We can’t run the risk of making the wrong decisions,” Riviere said.
But Galuteria pointed out that Balfour had significantly more knowledge and experience than a Land Use Commission nominee, Linda Estes, whom the committee had recommended Wednesday.
“Anything short of lack of moral integrity, one should be given the opportunity to serve,” said the senator representing Kakaako.
Ihara also voted in favor of Balfour, saying that he’s “the first business non-environmental water board member” he’s ever heard acknowledge the hierarchy of water rights, which prioritizes traditional and customary uses over corporate uses.
“No offense to Mr. Balfour, you would not be my pick, my selection,” Ihara said. “But I do find that he is qualified.”
The Senate’s only Republican, Slom, called the many phone calls and messages he received criticizing Balfour “distressing and disturbing.”
“We’ve got more than our share of hysterical non-factual testimony,” he said.
But Thielen pushed back on that assertion, emphasizing that she believed the criticisms were valid.
“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,” she said. “And there’s been concern this year.”
“I’m not sure if we would be making the same nominations if we were in the place of being the governor,” she added. “I guess I could say, I’m sure we would probably be making very different ones.”
Friday’s committee session was a continuation of a hearing that started Wednesday, when Balfour seemed ill-prepared despite serving on the commission from 2009 to 2014.
The former sugar company executive didn’t know why the Supreme Court had overturned a commission decision related to streams in East Maui, which Balfour had voted in favor of.
He couldn’t remember how he voted on an issue related to the Keauhou aquifer on the Big Island two years previously, and admitted he didn’t know the hierarchy of rights enumerated in the state water code.
Thielen gave Balfour an extra two days to brush up on the law. She met with him in her office Thursday to discuss the law as well.
On Friday, Balfour correctly stated the hierarchy of water rights.
He said he was “a little bit bummed” after Wednesday’s hearing but that he is anxious to be confirmed.
“I’m here fighting (for) it and I ask that you give serious consideration for my nomination because I think that I can serve you very, very well and serve the people of Hawaii very, very well,” he said.
After the hearing, Balfour spoke with attorneys from the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, who represent East Maui Hawaiian residents who want to restore stream flow that would allow them to grow taro and engage in their traditional cultural practices of hunting and gathering.
While previously serving on the commission, Balfour made the motion in 2010 to establish a seasonal stream flow for five streams, which the NHLC attorneys said accommodated the request of Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Company at the expense of the Native Hawaiian petitioners. The commission approved the motion, but the Supreme Court overturned it and sent it back to the commission for a new decision.
In the meantime, one of the petitioners, Beatrice Kekahuna, died. The case will be up before the commission again this year.
Balfour told Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation attorneys that he promises to keep in mind the hierarchy of water rights this time around. Both parties agreed that they harbor no hard feelings toward one another.
Still, NHLC staff attorney Camille Kalama said she’s disappointed with the committee’s recommendation.
“I think it sends a clear message to the folks who have been involved in water issues for the last 20 years that the politics haven’t changed,” she said.