A Kahuku mom says school officials aren’t listening to community concerns over giant wind turbines going up in the neighborhood.

Now, Sunny Kim Unga is suing the state Board of Education for shutting her out of a meeting where she hoped to convince board members to accept public input.

A lawsuit filed recently in First Circuit Court says the BOE violated the state’s open meetings law when it decided behind closed doors to reject her request.

Sunny Kim Unga wants school officials to accept public input on proposed developments that affect neighborhood schools, like Kahuku Elementary. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Unga, the mother of two children at Kahuku Elementary, lives near the wind energy project being developed by AES Corp. near Kahuku Agriculture Park. She’s unhappy that the state Department of Education never asked the school community to weigh in with its concerns before DOE commented on an environmental impact statement in 2016.

“I personally feel this (project) will affect the health and safety and well-being of our children,” Unga said in an interview. “What happens if there is malfunction in the blade and a tower collapses, what about fire, how would that affect toxic fumes?”

Unga wants the Board of Education to adopt a new rule to require the DOE to hold school community meetings over proposed developments within 5 miles of a school or library. She wants DOE to consider the views of school community members before submitting comments to a government agency or private developer.

Unga has been trying since September to get the issue in front of education officials. On Feb. 11 she got a letter from the BOE telling her that her petition was heard on Feb. 6, but denied. The board contends it isn’t required to hold public hearings when it comes to petitions like Unga’s.

Under the state’s Sunshine Law, all boards and agencies in Hawaii are required to provide notice of a meeting six days before it takes place, including laying out the agenda and giving the public an opportunity to provide written or oral testimony.

“Somebody decided they just didn’t have to do it, and they didn’t apparently,” said Unga’s attorney, Lance Collins. “To me, I’m a little baffled by why all this happened but I know bureaucracy moves at its own velocity and own direction.”

The written BOE decision mailed to Unga in February lays out the board’s rationale for denial: that DOE does not have authority over proposed developments unless they are on DOE-owned land; that it does not have authority over non-school based public libraries; and that the comments it provides to other agencies reflect its own view, not those of the community.

“We’ve tried many different avenues to try and get our concerns listened to and addressed and I just feel it’s been ignored.” — Sunny Kim Unga

According to the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, the exemption is bogus and irrelevant.

“It is ridiculous that the Board of Education thinks that it can override a statutory requirement in the Sunshine Law by passing a board rule,” Brian Black, the law center’s executive director, said, adding that any discussion is still a meeting under the Sunshine Law and must adhere to open meeting requirements.

In an email to Civil Beat, BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne said, “our policy is to follow the law as it applies to petitions for changes in administrative rules.”

In 2016, the DOE provided comment on the Kahuku wind farm, saying there would be an increase in outdoor noise and that students would be able to hear the windmills because of where the project was situated, although the anticipated noise would be lower than daytime noise limit regulations.

The DOE provided input without first holding a school community meeting in which it asked parents or teachers to weigh in on the project, according to Collins.

Unga said she’s been trying to reach DOE officials since the fall to air her concerns but to no avail.

“We’ve tried many different avenues to try and get our concerns listened to and addressed and I just feel it’s been ignored and our voices haven’t been heard,” Unga said.

She said she finally decided to petition the Board of Education.

“I’m saddened this is the reality — that a community member has to bring a lawsuit to force a government agency to abide by the Sunshine Law,” Unga said, “but I’m hoping this will continue the fight for greater transparency.”

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