There’s growing concern over who Gov. David Ige will choose to fill several key positions guiding land and water use policy, environmental protection, longterm planning and development — all of which can help shape Hawaii’s future.
Questions are also being raised about why the governor has yet to make certain appointments, particularly since the deadline has passed for those that require Senate approval to be confirmed before this legislative session ends May 7. That means the nominees will serve on an interim basis until the Senate meets again, either in special session or when the next regular session starts in January.
For many in the environmental community, disdain over who Ige has chosen not to keep, coupled with persistent uncertainty over who will take their places, has given way to speculation that these issues are less of a priority for the new administration.
Ige maintains that it’s about picking people who share his mission of changing the culture of government.
“Finding the right people for these public service jobs is difficult during a good economy when higher-paying private sector jobs are more plentiful,” Jodi Leong, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The governor is carefully considering a wide range of candidates for these jobs, and this process takes time.”
Among the most important posts Ige has yet to fill is director of the Office of Planning.
The office advises the Land Use Commission on boundary designations and special use permits; takes the lead on Coastal Zone Management, which involves guiding counties in their administration of the special management area permitting process; does strategic planning and works to coordinate efforts among various agencies and levels of government.
Leo Asuncion Jr. has been serving as the acting director of the Office of Planning, a job Jesse Souki held from February 2011 to February 2014 when he left to be first deputy director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Souki stepped down in December and went back into private legal practice after Ige took office. The Senate recently confirmed the governor’s choice of Kekoa Kaluhiwa to take over as first deputy for DLNR.
During his three years with the Office of Planning, Souki led an office of roughly 26 people and managed a $5 million budget. He worked to integrate climate adaptation into statewide planning and implement President Obama’s National Ocean Policy, among other initiatives.
The governor’s office says an interim appointment will be made.
A week after former Gov. Neil Abercrombie took office in December 2010, he nominated Honolulu lawyer William Tam as deputy director of the Commission on Water Resource Management. Abercrombie had already chosen William Aila to serve as interim chair of the DLNR and Guy Kaulukukui to be first deputy.
The law requires the DLNR chair to make the deputy director appointment, subject to confirmation by the commission. That eventually happened for Tam even though Abercrombie had already made a public announcement declaring his choice for the job.
Tam was not asked to stay on by the Ige administration, much to the chagrin of environmental groups and others who point to his decades of experience in the area and the fact that he co-authored the Water Code in the 1980s.
Roy Hardy has served as acting deputy director for Water Resource Management.
Part of the delay may be attributed to Ige having to withdraw his first choice to head the DLNR, Carleton Ching, after significant public outcry over his lack of experience and ties to developers as a lobbyist for Castle & Cooke.
Ige has since appointed Suzanne Case, a highly celebrated decision among environmental groups. She easily cleared a committee hurdle last week and is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate soon.
It’ll be up to her to find a permanent replacement for Tam, but the decision will have to have Ige’s indirect approval.
It could also be tough for Case to have her pick for deputy confirmed. The Senate is in the process of confirming William Balfour to the commission, who would likely oppose a strong environmental appointment given his record supporting the sugar industry. And Ige has opted to not keep Denise Antolini past June 30, which could sway the commission depending on who her successor will be.
The deputy director is tasked with administering and implementing the state water code, as well as all the rules and directives of the commission.
There’s been no word on whether Jessica Wooley will be asked to stay on as head of the Office of Environmental Quality Control. Her term is set to end June 30.
She leads a small office with big responsibilities — namely, implementing the laws and rules regarding environmental impact statements. This is a comprehensive review that covers environmental, social, economic and cultural impacts of certain projects, such as those using land classified as a conservation district, within a shoreline area or within a historic site.
Abercrombie appointed Wooley in March 2014. The Senate confirmed her in a 17-8 vote, split in part over her support for labeling genetically modified food.
As Wooley awaits a decision on whether she’ll be asked to serve another term, a key board she sits on as an ex-officio member, the Environmental Council, has struggled to meet due to so many empty seats.
Only nine of the council’s 15 seats are currently filled and five members’ terms are set to end June 30. The April meeting was canceled because the council lacked the eight members needed to make quorum; there’s concern this will happen more frequently in the coming months.
The council advises the governor, all state agencies and the Legislature on environmental issues. The council’s 2014 annual report, released this month, says its role is to provide information on the state of the environment and identify priorities, especially for decision-makers.
Ige has only submitted one name to the Senate for confirmation, Robert Parsons, who easily cleared a committee hurdle last week and is on track to serve on the council.
There are similar concerns with the Land Use Commission.
The commission administers the state land use law, which provides the framework for land use management by classifying lands as urban, rural, agricultural or preservation. The LUC decides what uses should be allowed in what zones, considering requests like building affordable housing on farmland.
Ige withdrew two of of his nominees to the LUC this month, three interim appointees’ terms are set to end May 7 and another member’s term expires June 30. That creates quorum problems for the nine-member board, which had to cancel meetings last summer after five members quit over a new law requiring them to make their financial disclosure statements public.
The challenge of filling dozens of state boards and commissions has consumed much of the administration’s time. It’s hard to find people to volunteer for jobs that can subject them to intense public scrutiny.
Of the nominations Ige has made since taking office, he’s had to withdraw 34 appointments, including Ching and the two to the LUC. Most of the others were for boards that are less in the spotlight, such as the Workforce Development Council and Motor Vehicle Repair Industry Board.
Sen. Laura Thielen, who chairs the Water and Land Committee that advises the full Senate on many of these nominees, said she’s concerned about the number of remaining vacancies.
By her count, of the 22 land and water board or commission nominees made by the governor, 14 were previously appointed by Abercrombie and one came from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Ige has only offered seven new names, Thielen said, including Ching, Balfour and Case. The other four were Kaluhiwa; Keith Downing, whom the governor chose instead of reappointing Abercrombie’s nominee Vernon Char to the Board of Land and Natural Resources; Linda Estes, whom Ige picked instead of Tommy Oi, another of Abercrombie’s BLNR appointees; and Marjorie Zeigler, whom Ige chose to serve on the Legacy Land Conservation Commission.
In a blog post Wednesday, Thielen questioned what the list says about Ige’s philosophy or beliefs on land and natural resources.
“Perhaps the administration was concentrating more on the boards and commissions because they were subject to confirmation,” she told Civil Beat.
Either way, Thielen said she hopes more environmental appointments are made soon.