Gov. David Ige has neglected to fill a number of vacancies on the state’s Environmental Council and members say that is crippling the agency.
The council, which advises Ige, government agencies and the Legislature on the myriad environmental issues facing Hawaii, has struggled to do much more than hold its monthly meetings over the past year, let alone dig into the business before it.
There are six vacancies on the 15-member Environmental Council. Three more — including the current chair, Joseph Shacat, and vice chair, Scott Glenn — have volunteered to keep serving despite their terms having expired June 30.
And that’s not counting Jessica Wooley, who, as head of the Office of Environmental Quality Control, automatically serves as a board member. Her term, set to end June 30, has been extended through the end of October, according to the governor’s office.
Jodi Leong, Ige’s spokeswoman, said the governor is searching for people to fill the empty seats on the council. Ige hasn’t decided whether to hold Wooley over or appoint a new OEQC director.
The Environmental Council, which has a long history of being neglected despite its statutorily directed role to help the state make sound environmental policy decisions, is making do with what it’s got.
In the meantime, the council, which has a long history of being neglected despite its statutorily directed role to help the state make sound environmental policy decisions, is making do with what it’s got.
At least eight members must be present to form a quorum so the council can conduct business. At the moment, if more than one person can’t make a meeting, it’s canceled, as happened earlier this summer when there were even more empty seats.
The same holds for voting. For the council to approve even mundane things like meeting minutes, no more than one person can vote no or abstain, because eight votes are needed to constitute a majority.
That hampers progress on what the council can do, whether it’s reviewing the outdated rules governing the state’s environmental review process or determining what activities should be exempt from such reviews so that government can run more efficiently.
Fewer people on the council also means more work for the nine members now serving.
“We’re doing it because we care, but it adds more pressure,” Shacat said Friday.
Besides serving as council chair, he is the environmental compliance manager for Grace Pacific, a construction company that does much of the road paving around Hawaii.
“Every single person on the council is really committed to doing the right thing, and looking at it from a really balanced perspective,” Shacat said. “There’s … a variety of perspectives and not always an easy answer. It’s a tough job.”
Some past Environmental Council opinions have proven worth heeding.
A council subcommittee met Friday to work on this year’s annual report, due Jan. 31. Lack of staffing has kept past councils from completing their annual reports on time, but Shacat said he is determined to beat the deadline this year.
The council’s 2014 annual report, published in April, listed the most critical sustainability issues, including invasive and endangered species, water management, energy use, food security and the need to create a better government structure to deal with all of them.
Looking forward, one council priority for next year is near-shore commercial activities — in particular, strengthening rules limiting the collecting of fish for aquariums.
The council plans to send a letter to the Department of Land and Natural Resources explaining objections to its aquarium program.
Rob Parsons, who joined the council in May, said the council wants the department to institute a moratorium on the trade in light of unprecedented coral bleaching that is stressing reef fish populations.
Parsons, who serves as Maui County’s environmental coordinator, said the council has “always been a little bit below the radar.”
Some past council opinions have proven worth heeding.
Take the short-lived Hawaii Superferry. Former Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration exempted the interisland ferry project from an environmental assessment in 2005 despite a state law that triggered an assessment because $40 million in taxpayer money was going to be spent on harbor improvements.
The council issued a resolution in 2007 saying an environmental review clearly was needed. Months later, the state Supreme Court came to the same conclusion, and the ferry service ultimately went out of business.
In 2009, three council members resigned, citing Lingle’s disregard for the council and inadequate staffing levels. The Associated Press reported at the time that the council was barely functional with 12 members, struggling to make quorums. Now, there are only nine members.
Council members said they also hope to update Hawaii Administrative Rules for environmental assessments and for the more-robust impact statements that must be carried out for certain projects. The reviews are expensive and time-consuming, but they scrutinize environmental, historical, cultural and other impacts of a proposed project and give the public a chance to comment. The rules haven’t been substantially updated in almost 20 years.
“In some ways they’re either in conflict or misleading with respect to Supreme Court decisions or opinions from the Attorney General’s office, so we’d like to get some of that cleaned up,” Shacat said.
The council also looks at requests from state agencies and recommends what activities should be exempted from environmental reviews.
“That allows the agencies to streamline their process for routine maintenance and small projects that don’t have any impact,” Shacat said.
In August, the council reviewed dozens of exemptions for the Hawaii County Department of Public Works, ranging from the maintenance of dams to repairing guardrails.
“I think it’s interesting, even me as chair, that I’m on a holdover status. It makes it difficult.” — Joseph Shacat, Environmental Council chairman
Shacat said his last talk with the governor’s office, in July, led to the appointment of Roy Abe, an engineer. Abe’s first meeting with the council was in August. He also serves on the subcommittee reviewing the annual report.
Shacat said he and one other member whose terms expired in June have applied for another term. He said that he knows other people who are well-qualified have applied but have not heard anything back from the governor or the state Office of Boards and Commissions.
“I think it’s interesting, even me as chair, that I’m on a holdover status,” he said, adding that he knows the governor’s office is aware of the vacancy issue. “It makes it difficult.”
State lawmakers and others have questioned the numerous vacancies on the Environmental Council, as well as other unfilled environmental positions in the administration, since at least April — five months after Ige took office.
Six months later, the same questions still are being asked over the number of empty seats and positions being filled on a temporary basis.
“We’re always on the lookout for qualified people to serve,” Leong said Monday, referring to the Environmental Council. “I can’t speak to the difficulty in filling those positions.”