The Ige administration is struggling to fill nearly 350 vacancies on state boards and commissions.
They include positions on island burial councils as well as agencies focused on mental health and substance abuse, early learning, taxation, the environment and aerospace and space exploration.
It’s a tall order, one that vexes any administration. But it’s compounded by the fact that there are so many pukas to plug.
All told, the state has more than 170 boards and commissions with about 1,686 seats total. Just over 20 percent of the total number of seats presently sit empty.
The boards and commissions are considered an essential part of governance and a way to get citizens involved in the process. But only 12 boards are paid, although there is compensation for travel on others.
With all the vacancies, the administration and several lawmakers say the state may need to reconsider the size and scope of the panels and find creative ways to attract more applicants.
“There may be too many, as a matter of fact, and there is some duplication I have seen over the years,” said state Sen. Sam Slom. “And some commissions are not really active and there isn’t anyone holding them to accountability.”
Slom is very familiar with the boards and commissions, as most members require Senate confirmation. As the lone Republican in the chamber, Slom sits on all confirmation committees.
The hundreds of nominations every year come on top of other appointments such as departmental heads and judicial nominees. When a new governor comes on board, as is the case with David Ige’s first term, the workload multiplies.
Terms are usually staggered so that there is continuity. All terms, which are typically four years in length, also expire on June 30, raising the number of the vacancies at the same time.
Several boards and commissions are doing necessary work and are influential and well-known, like the Public Utilities Commission and the Board of Land and Natural Resources. Those two have been in the headlines recently regarding, respectively, the proposed NextEra-Hawaiian Electric merger and the permit process for the Thirty Meter Telescope.
More than 20 percent of the seats on state boards and commissions sit vacant.
There are also dozens of professional boards and vocational licensing programs, including ones dedicated to services ranging from acupuncture to pest control, from real estate to cosmetology. There’s even a five-member Boxing Commission, one that currently includes Bienvenido Villaflor, a former boxing champion whose day job is the Senate sergeant-at-arms.
But many boards and commissions are relatively obscure and their responsibility rather vague — for example, the Commission on Fatherhood, whose mission is “to promote healthy family relationships by emphasizing the important role fathers play in the lives of their children.” Its Nov. 17 agenda listed planning for an International Fatherhood Conference and judging contest winners of student essays (“Tell Your Story About Your Dad”). There is currently one vacancy on the commission, whose website lists seven voting members.
Another agency, the King Kamehameha Celebration Commission, is tasked with coordinating all state-sponsored and other celebrations commemorating the memory of King Kamehameha I. But there are currently nine vacancies on the 13-member commission.
Honoring fathers and Hawaii’s greatest monarch is important, but so is the protection of the remains of Native Hawaiian ancestors. The fact that there are so many vacancies on island burial councils — 24 out of 33 positions — concerns one former member.
Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, who served on the Oahu Island Burial Council from 2011 to 2014, said the councils were created to protect human remains on private property and to involve the Hawaiian community, in particular those who can trace their ancestry to where the remains are discovered.
“It’s incredibly important, and it’s been a chronic problem filling vacancies,” said Scheuer. “Certainly, some of it is getting people to volunteer. It can be time-consuming.”
“Even for those of us who do not have that many assets to disclose, the financial disclosure gives a little pause.” —LUC board member Jonathan Likeke Scheuer
Most boards and commissions meet quarterly while others meet monthly or semi-annually, the state explains on the boards and commissions FAQ: “Board members must be able to dedicate time outside of meetings to do reading, research, etc.”
Board members also will need to become familiar with Hawaii’s open meetings law (the Sunshine Law) and the open records law (known as the UIPA) as well as the Hawaii State Ethics Guide and other key statutes, including those addressing standards of conduct. It’s a lot of material to digest.
Scheuer said another reason it can be difficult to get more people to serve on boards and commissions is that the Legislature last year added 15 boards and commissions — including the PUC and the BLNR — to the list of those whose members must publicly disclose their financial ties.
Also on the list was the Land Use Commission, a powerful, influential agency where Scheuer now serves. Scheuer, who was not required to publicly disclose his finances when he was on the Oahu burial council, said, “Even for those of us who do not have that many assets to disclose, the financial disclosure gives a little pause.”
Ige’s predeccesor and fellow Democrat Neil Abercrombie was among those opposing the increased financial disclosure. The former governor says he worried it would discourage government service and, oddly, be harmful to women.
Ige, who was running against Abercrombie at the time, supported the bill, however, which Abercrombie ultimately let become law without his signature. But more than a dozen board members resigned before the law could go into effect last summer, including five members of the LUC and one from the BLNR. The five LUC resignations left the nine-member commission without a quorum, halting for a spell its ability to conduct business. There’s now only one vacancy on the LUC.
Slom, the Senate Republican, supported the bill because, he said, it can reveal conflicts of interest. But he acknowledged that it can be a turn off when it comes to public service. He said he personally knew of one applicant to a state commission who was forced to withdraw from an appointment because her husband had signed nondisclosure contracts with clients.
“Under law both she and her spouse had to disclose their finances, so there are always unanticipated things that happen,” he said, “But I want transparency in government.”
Still, there’s no evidence that financial disclosure requirements are preventing significant numbers of potential board members from serving.
Slom points to the experience of Carleton Ching as another reason people may shy away from appointments. The Castle & Cooke executive was withdrawn as Ige’s nominee to lead the Department of Land and Natural resources during the 2015 legislative session because he lacked the Senate votes for confirmation. Ching, who would have led the BLNR by virtue of his DLNR post, was criticized for lacking experience in preserving natural resources and being to cozy with developers. Environmental groups in particular opposed his nomination and ramped up political pressure on Ige to choose another candidate.
In fact, lawmakers seek expertise from boards and commissions. They are established in the Hawaii Constitution, state statutes and executive orders and are intended to provide an opportunity for citizens to have “a voice in their government and provide a means of influencing decisions that shape the quality of life for the residents of Hawaii,” according to the state’s website for boards and commissions.
Will Espero, a Democrat who serves as Senate vice president, said state government needs the experience and expertise that board and commission members bring. He said he is concerned that excessive vacancies mean important work may not be getting done.
Part of the problem of attracing applicants, said Espero, is lack of awareness that the positions exist.
“Many people aren’t familiar with these boards and commissions,” he said.
Espero added that he knows people who have applied to serve but were never called back, suggesting possible problems with the screening process.
“The administration needs to be more aggressive in seeking candidates and to go to places to find them — for example, with the tax review vacancies, talk to CPA organizations or accounting groups.”
“Many people aren’t familiar with these boards and commissions.” — State Sen. Will Espero
Espero also complained about lack of departmental oversight. He pointed to the example of the Re-enty Commission, which was founded almost six years ago but has met only once since 2013. As Civil Beat reported in October, it’s because eight seats on the 10-member commission have been empty for more than three years.
Espero said he has followed up with the Department of Public Safety, reminding director Nolan Espinda that he promised to act on the Re-entry Commission, which was created through legislation sponsored by Espero.
Espero is also pushing for the creation of a medical marijuana commission in light of the establishment of medical pot dispensaries under a 2015 law. The senator expects legislation to that effect in the 2016 session.
In addition to creating them, the Legislature has the power to shut down boards and commissions. Two years ago, for example, it repealed the Commission on Transportation, which had existed for more than 50 years.
Then-Department of Transportation Director Glenn Okimoto supported the commission’s elimination, advising that its purpose was no longer needed and that it would streamline the operations of the DOT “without negative impact to the public.”
But Owen Miyamoto, one of 11 commissioners, opposed the plan, arguing that it offered invaluable insight with transportation issues and was especially helpful to the neighbor islands. That said, Miyamoto also noted that the Commission on Transportation was without a chair and vice chair and had not met for almost a year before the Legislature decided to axe it.
It’s not clear how Hawaii compares with other states when it comes to boards and commissions. Elena Waskey, press secretary for the National Governors Association, said the NGA does not track state boards and commissions with a comprehensive database.
The NGA does, however, have a nine-page guide about governors’ appointment process, which makes clear how important it is to hire good people.
“The gubernatorial appointment process and the choice of appointees can send a clear message about the governor’s policy positions and management objectives to the public and state government,” it explains. “The appointment process also offers the governor an early opportunity to place key personnel and gain some control over the state bureaucracy.”
The NGA guide adds, “The quality of appointments is critical, because the governor’s appointees are perceived as extensions of the office. A good appointment will reflect well on the governor, while a bad appointment may undermine his or her programs and policies — or even embarrass the governor. The public will form a lasting impression of the governor based on the appointments made early in his or her administration.”
“There may be too many boards and commissions, as a matter of fact, and there is some duplication I have seen over the years.” —State Sen. Sam Slom
The Ige administration is well aware of the frustrations that come with filling — or failing to fill — boards and commissions.
The governor’s office said in an email it has prioritized boards that require a quorum and ones that have “critical issues and decisions before them” — the BLNR and the Hawaii Community Development Authority, for example, have no vacancies.
That said, some boards have not had a quorum because of members’ vacation or sick leave. The administration did not provide examples.
Ige’s staff is also reaching out to “the public, communities, state departments and agencies, various professional organizations” through news releases (one was issued in early November) and neighbor island outreach.
But the administration said the increased financial disclosure requirements have led to fewer applications. Certain boards also have specific requirements — for instance, being a parent of a disabled child between the ages of 1 and 6 — a category that is challenging to meet because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act Privacy Rule.
Asked if Hawaii has too many boards and commissions, Jodi Leong, Ige’s press secretary, said in an email the office is reviewing them to see “if the purpose of each board/commission is aligned with the Governor’s mission and vision for a better Hawaii.”
For Scheuer, the LUC board member, he’d like to see the boards and commissions themselves do more to get the word out about what they do, and why it is important to find people to serve on them.
“Generally, we live in a time where many people don’t necessarily understand the distinction between the level of local, state and federal government, and House members versus Senate members,” he said. “The myriad boards and commissions are at a level of detail that is just not understood by most people, but the boards and commissions thelseves do a very poor job — almost nonexistent — of explaining and educating people about their purpose. They should become much more social media-savvy in the 21st century and tell people about who we are, what we do and why it’s important to be involved.”
Slom, meanwhile encourages the Ige administration and his fellow lawmakers to reach across party aisles to find competent people to serve.
“The Democrats have been in charge for 60 years and appointed a lot of people, yet we still haven’t solved all the problems,” he said, adding that during Republican Linda Lingle’s eight years as governor, the GOP surprised many Democrats by finding a lot of fresh faces to get involved in their government.