When Gov. David Ige announced a reboot of his administration’s response to COVID-19 in September, much attention focused on Dr. Libby Char’s appointment as director of the Department of Health and Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s expanded role as Ige’s COVID-19 liaison.

Largely overlooked was the creation of an advisory panel of state and local political leaders and executives of big companies and nonprofits. The administration dubbed the new committee the Laulima Alliance, recruited a former Department of Health director to chair it and described it as “a cross functional team of public and private sector resources, ensuring that all have a voice in policy making and implementation of programs responding to the pandemic.”

A month later, it’s not clear what exactly that means or what the alliance is actually doing. And that’s partly by design.

Masked Governor David Ige enters press conference during COVID19 pandemic. August 31, 2020
Gov. David Ige set up the Laulima Alliance to help guide the recovery. A month later just what it has done is not clear. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Dr. Virginia Pressler, the former state health director who heads the alliance, said the group isn’t taking official action or establishing policy, but rather advising Ige.

“He’s assembling this, so he can make better decisions,” Pressler said in an interview.

That the meetings are closed to the public with no agendas or minutes promotes candid conversations she said.

“We’re really trying to have an environment where people aren’t afraid to speak up,” she said.

The 27-member committee includes leaders from state government like Senate President Ron Kouchi, House Speaker Scott Saiki and chairs of the Legislature’s powerful money committees: Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Donovan Dela Cruz and House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke. Char and Green also are members.

But the panel also includes a spectrum of people outside of government, like Bank of Hawaii Chairman, President and Chief Executive Peter Ho, Hawaii Government Employees Association Executive Director Randy Perreira, Hawaii Community Foundation Chief Executive Micah Kane and HMSA President and Chief Executive Dr. Mark Mugiishi.

Dr Virgnia Pressler Gov Ige presser.
Dr. Virgnia Pressler is the Laulima Alliance’s volunteer chair. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Pressler said her job is to encourage candid dialogue on pressing issues. So far, she said, the group has had three meetings and has discussed topics like the Oct. 15 opening to tourists and plans on spending the state’s federal CARES Act funds before year’s end.

“This a forum where people can be brutally honest and not be afraid of being quoted,” she said.

The Laulima Alliance’s secrecy is a marked contrast to the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness. Nearly half of the alliance’s members also sit on the House committee, which is co-chaired by Saiki and Ho.

In addition to Mugiishi and Kane, Dr. Jill Hoggard Green, president and chief executive of The Queen’s Health Systems, sits on both. So do Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce and Ray Vara, president and chief executive of the hospital company Hawaii Pacific Health.

The House committee’s meetings are fully transparent and are followed by a lengthy media briefing conducted on Zoom in which committee members engage in extensive conversations with reporters.

The members of the Laulima Alliance according to a list provided by Gov. David Ige’s office last week. Governor's office

Conversation is so candid that at a meeting in early May, Maj. Gen. Ken Hara, the head of the Hawaii Department of Defense who also sits on both committees, said he was going to ask Ige to order then-Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson to hire more contact tracers.

That sort of transparent dialogue is healthy, said Janet Mason, legislative chair of the League of Women Voters Hawaii.

Given the prominence of its members, she said, the Laulima Alliance could serve as a bridge to the future when the pandemic ends. There should be a way for the public to engage, she said.

“Good ideas come from lots of different places,” she said.

Asked about the need for candor, she said, “That’s a really lame and out of date excuse: the candid discussions” argument.

Pressler said she did not set the policy and merely came out of retirement to volunteer.

“As much as I didn’t want to get involved in this, the stakes are so high for our state,” she said.

Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for Ige, insisted members needed to feel safe for a healthy dialogue to occur.

“For Laulima to be a safe place to air points of view, share data from different perspectives and engender discussion without concern about public perception, it is important for the group to be assured that their individual views cannot be used without their prior consent,” she said in a statement.

“The members may share their views outside of Laulima as long as they don’t share the views of others without their prior consent,” she added.

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