The deputy budget director’s nomination also advanced while three more of Green’s nominees were confirmed by the full Senate.

A key Senate committee gave preliminary approval for Dawn Chang to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources on Friday after months of lobbying against her nomination by environmental groups and others who took issue with involvement in a burials case years ago.

Her nomination now goes to the full 25-member Senate. If confirmed, she would become the first Native Hawaiian woman to fill the role.

Three more of Gov. Josh Green’s Cabinet appointments also won approval from the full Senate including Maj. Gen. Ken Hara to head the state Department of Defense; Jordan Lowe, the new law enforcement director; and Sharon Hurd, the state agriculture director.

Chang’s nomination has taken a similar path to Hurd’s: both directors initially stumbled through budget hearings in January before recouping and overcoming resistance from lawmakers and stakeholder groups that may not have initially supported their nominations.

Dawn Chang, left, the nominee to lead the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, won preliminary approval. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In Chang’s case, it was demonstrating that she understood the Department of Land and Natural Resources and all its complexities, the issues it touches on including forestry, fishing and wildlife protection, as well as a willingness to move the needle on a nearly two-decade old program to transfer certain pasture lands to the Department of Agriculture.

“You’ve come a long way,” Sen. Angus McKelvey told Chang during the Committee on Water and Land hearing. He added that when he first arrived in the Senate after his election last year he recalled Senate Water and Land Chairwoman Lorraine Inouye saying “we’ve got to do something about Dawn Chang.”

Inouye was in full support of Chang’s nomination, saying she “has demonstrated extraordinary leadership skills during her brief time as chairperson and shown a willingness to work with others including us here at the Legislature and other departments.”

Chang had broad support from public testifiers during the confirmation hearing.

Gary Okuda, who served alongside Chang on the state Land Use Commission, said she can bring people together and knows how to hold people accountable.

He pointed to the LUC’s decision in 2019 to shutter the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill, in which Chang took part in as a board member, as well as a separate case before the LUC in which Chang asked a Maui housing developer to go back and meet with more people in the surrounding community.

“When she talks about collaboration, it’s not B.S.,” Okuda said.

But her nomination ran into strong opposition from environmental groups over her role as an environmental consultant with the small firm Kuiwalu, which was contracted by developers in the past to perform environmental or cultural assessments for projects.

Author Tom Coffman said that put her at odds with DLNR’s mission, which is to protect some 1.3 million acres of public lands, 3 million acres of nearshore waters and numerous cultural sites.

“She is a mismatch for numerous and long-standing relationships through her business with developers,” Coffman said. “Her business was primarily consulting with developers, however else you parse it.”

Much of the opposition was also fueled by a recommendation Chang made to Kawaiahao Church in 2006 to not pursue an archeological inventory survey of its property while planning for a multipurpose center.

The church eventually unearthed hundreds of burial remains, which led to its plans stalling along with numerous legal battles.

Chang has said that her recommendation was just one of many considered by the church. She told the committee on Friday that the recommendation not to pursue an AIS came only after the church decided to move away from building an underground parking lot, which triggered the need for an archeological study in the first place.

Kawaiahao Church kakaako condo1. 4 may 2016
Much of the opposition to Chang’e nomination had to do with a Kawaiahao Church project. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

“It was never my intention to disinter burials,” Chang said.

She told the committee that she was already in the process of winding down her business with Kuiwalu when Green asked her to lead DLNR. Kuiwalu has since closed out its work with all of its clients.

Chang also promised to recuse herself from most decisions regarding Mauna Kea since Kuiwalu developed management plans for the Big Island mountain, home to an astronomy district and still the targeted site for development of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Chang was bedecked in lei after the hearing, and appeared confident going into her confirmation vote before the full Senate, which has not yet been scheduled. She said the opposition to her nomination appears to be coming from groups outside the Capitol rather than from specific senators.

“I think I’ve warmed up to them, by being prepared,” Chang said. “I come doing my homework and I come to answer their questions.”

Earlier in the day, the Senate Ways and Means Committee voted to support Sabrina Nasir’s nomination to be the deputy director of the Department of Budget and Finance.

Nasir won a unanimous vote in the committee, although Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Sens. Kurt Fevella and Michelle Kidani voted “with reservations.”

The concerns had to do with an incident in 2017 in which 20 Ways and Means staffers, including Nasir, shredded documents and deleted others from hard drives under the direction of the committee’s former chief of staff. Some of the materials were routinely discarded at the end of session. Others that were wiped from hard drives were still recoverable in the Senate’s data files.

Still, the disposal of some documents apparently led to a rough transition period between WAM chairs. That year, Dela Cruz ousted former state senator and current U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda from her position leading the Senate money committee.

“I personally am very sorry for my part in discarding materials during the 2017 transition,” she said.

Dela Cruz said he believes Nasir is capable of completing the job on a professional and technical level. There was no opposition to Nasir’s nomination and nearly 200 written pieces of testimony supporting her.

“I’m very grateful to the chair and to the committee for considering my nomination,” she said after the hearing.

Having five of Green’s nominees clear major hurdles in one day stands in stark contrast to March 24, when Green saw his economic director and planning director fail to win enough votes in the Senate to get confirmed to their jobs.

Civil Beat reporter Ben Angarone contributed to this story.

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