Two Hawaii Gov Appointments Suddenly in Trouble in the Senate

Honolulu Civil Beat - April 29, 2014
By: 
Chad Blair

Two important gubernatorial appointments face opposition from key legislators in the Hawaii state Senate.

Ironically, one nominee is for an environmental watchdog post — protecting the aina — while the other has been nominated to the development agency for Kakaako — building the aina.

Both nominees sailed through confirmation hearings and have wide support from important people and organizations; a defeat for either nominee would be an embarrassment not only for Gov. Neil Abercrombie but also for the committee chairmen that have led the advise-and-consent process.

And both nominations have political implications, with the governor seeking a second term and Senate Ways and Means Chairman David Ige challenging him in the Democratic primary. There are few issues more important than the environment vs. development in Hawaii.

If that isn't dramatic enough, the Senate is expected to vote on both nominations Tuesday, the penultimate session day of the 2014 Legislature.

Jessica Wooley is chairwoman of the House Agriculture committee. Abercrombie has appointed her director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control.

The OEQC, the acronym the office is known by, is tasked with implementing the state's environmental impact statement law and related administrative rules.

The man who previously held the OEQC job, Gary Hooser, and Department of Health official Gary Gill, the man who held the job on an interim position when Hooser was elected to the Kauai County Council in 2012, are well-known for their environmental advocacy. Both support Wooley's nomination. So does House Speaker Joe Souki.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Clarence Nishihara, however, does not. Even though Wooley's nomination easily passed the Senate Energy and Environment committee earlier this month, Nishihara is trying to pull together the 13 votes needed to block her confirmation in the 25-member Senate.

Nishihara's opposition, he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, includes doubts about Wooley's honesty. Legislative observers say his opposition may also have to do with differing views on genetically modified organisms and other issues related to agriculture and the environment. Wooley is widely praised among enviro-types; Nishihara is a favorite of the biotech industry.

Nishihara and Wooley did not respond to Civil Beat's inquiries Monday. But Mike Gabbard, chairman of Senate Energy and Environment, which approved Wooley's nomination, said he did not hear about Nishihara's concerns until Friday night.

"I was surprised," he said Monday. "And now it's the 11th hour and Nishihara is seeking to undermine her nomination, even asking the governor to withdraw the nomination."
Gabbard strongly defended Wooley, who he called "more qualified than most senators" to lead OEQC.

"And the fact that Nishihara has gone public, casting aspersions on her honesty — I think that is a serious charge, especially made about someone holding public office," he said. "So I mentioned to him, 'Where is the evidence to sustain your charges?' And I have not received it."

Gabbard did say Nishihara made reference to Wooley changing her mind about legislation during conference committee, which ended Friday.
"But that's conference," said Gabbard. "There are so many variables during conference."

Wooley and Nishihara served as conferees on several ag bills that did not survive. They include measures funding a land buy from Dole Food for what's known as the Whitmore project, allowing for agricultural loans to be administered for livestock biosecurity projects and authorizing the Department of Agriculture to establish private-public partnerships to enhance the biosecurity program and the quarantine inspection process.

Gabbard added that Wooley's is just a one-year appointment; if senators aren't impressed with her work by next year, they may have a shot at voting on her again.
It is rare, though not unprecedented, for the Senate to reject a confirmation committee's recommendation. It's rarer still when the Senate rejects a gubernatorial nominee that is a fellow legislator still serving in office — and they are all Democrats.

In the small world that is Hawaii politics, the Wooley brouhaha has side aspects of interest.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii is aggressively pushing for Wooley's nomination; its executive director, Robert Harris, who is on leave from the club, has announced his interest in running for Wooley's House seat, should she be confirmed. Two years ago, Harris led the Sierra Club's successful effort to defeat former Rep. Pono Chong, who was forced into a race against fellow Democrat Wooley after redistricting.

Finally, Wooley's husband is Earthjustice attorney David Henkin; Earthjustice is one of several organizations to join a lawsuit to defend Kauai County's restrictions on GMOs.
Molokai resident Glenn Ioane Teves, a member of OEQC's advisory Environmental Council, emailed thoughts about Wooley 's nomination.
"Without your voice, these critical local food production issues would not be addressed in a legislative atmosphere more focused on pandering to special interest groups pushing the industrial agriculture model, and land developers and their cronies hungry to convert agricultural land to housing far out of reach of the majority of our residents, young and old," he wrote, referring to the nominee. "The future of local sustainable food production lies in the balance, and is more in peril by your departure from the legislature."

The second troubled gubernatorial nomination is that of Brian Tamamoto to serve on the Hawaii Community Development Authority. Like Wooley's nomination, Tamamoto's nomination received glowing testimony.

It came from the likes of HCDA Executive Director Tony Ching, Mary Alice Evans, the deputy director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism; the United Public Workers, Hawaii Laborers Union Local 368 and ILWU Local 142; Pacific Resource Partnership, the labor-management consortium representing carpenters and contractors; and the Building Industry Association of Hawaii.

But Tamamoto's confirmation hearing vote was not unanimous; state Sen. Laura Thielen voted no. She and several other senators believe Tamamoto has a conflict of interest through his association with the Kobayashi Group, a developer in Kakaako.

On her blog page, Thielen said she has nothing personal against Tamamoto. "But his nomination violates the letter, or at least the intent, of the law requiring small business representation on the HCDA Board," she wrote.

Tamamoto is executive vice president at Royal Holdings, a Kobayashi subsidiary, and is responsible for oversight and asset management of a golf course and hotel and property development.

"According to their Web page, the Kobayashi Group has developed over $3 billion worth of property in Hawaii," Thielen blogged. "Major projects include Kukio Golf and Beach Club, Wailea Beach Resort Condominium-Hotel. In addition, Kobayashi Group is in partnership with the Howard Hughes Corporation to build ONE Ala Moana, the ultra-luxury condominium being built above Nordstrom's parking in Ala Moana. In addition, they and a partner purchased six acres in Kakaako to build two luxury residential condominiums, which purchase was confirmed by Mr. Tamamoto during his confirmation hearing, although he stated the plans for the property were not finalized."
Several hundred people have signed a petition to the HCDA Kakaako board urging the governor to withdraw Tamamoto's name, arguing that "his appointment only perpetuates the on-going effort to fast track development approvals despite the myriad of concerns raised by residents."

Tamamoto's nomination was set for last Thursday but deferred until Tuesday. When asked earlier this month whether the governor planned to withdraw Tamamoto's name, an Abercrombie's spokesman told Civil Beat, "Brian Tamamoto was chosen from a list of nominees selected by the City and County of Honolulu. The Governor respects the Senate's advice and consent process, which allows for public comment."

On Monday, Ige said he would vote against confirming Tamamoto because he does not represent small business.
"Whether it be the owner of an auto-repair shop or an entrepreneur who just opened a small restaurant, these small Kakaako business owners should have a voice in development of the area," Ige said.

In a related matter, a bill making changes to the HCDA appointment process sits on the governor's desk and faces a Thursday deadline. Ige said that, even if the bill is signed into law, Tamamoto would serve through March 2015, something that Ige said is troubling to Kakaako residents who have called his office about the appointment.
Messages were left Monday with Tamamoto and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of Senate Economic Development, Government Operations and Housing, which handled Tamamoto's nomination.

With a few exceptions, Abercrombie has seen most of his appointments confirmed by the Senate. Recently, they include Don Horner, who was reappointed to lead the Board of Education, and Mike Wilson, who was confirmed as an associate justice to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
On October, however, the governor's previous pick for OEQC, Genevieve Salmonson, was withdrawn after environmental groups raised a fuss about Salmonson's role in the Hawaii Superferry debacle.