Senate Panel Approves Governor's Land Board Nominees

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March 22, 2022

All five of Gov. David Ige’s nominees to the Board of Land and Natural Resources sailed through two days of hearings before the Senate Water and Land Committee with little opposition.

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The committee approved the nominations. They now go to the full Senate for a vote.

The seven-member board acts as the executive arm of the Department of Natural Resources. The members include one from each district and two at-large representatives.

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The nominees’ backgrounds include expertise in engineering, real estate, Native Hawaiian issues, museum administration, climate change and community activism.

The five people Ige nominated are Doreen Canto, Aimee Keli’i Barnes, Karen Ono, Riley Smith, and Wesley “Kaiwi” Yoon.

Yoon has served on the board as an at-large representative and is nominated for a second term. Canto has represented Maui on the board on an interim basis since July 2021. Barnes has represented the city and county of Honolulu since January of this year.

Testimony about the nominees at hearings on Monday and last week was overwhelmingly positive, pointing out their individual strengths and qualifications. The nominees addressed questions from Sen. Gil Riviere about their positions on community based fisheries, diverting water from streams and how they would make decisions on controversial issues.

The nominees generally stated they would be fair and seek balance among the competing resource needs of the public, communities and industry.

Not all of the testimony submitted in writing was glowing.

Mary True, a resident of Pepe’ekeo on the Big Island, submitted a letter opposing the nomination of Smith, president and chief executive of Lanihau Properties. Smith’s job involves managing lands within Honokohau on the Big Island, commercial leases in Kailua and business operations at Palani Ranch.

True said she has concerns about activities at the Honolulu telecommunications company Waimana Enterprises, where he was formerly a vice president.

True noted that Smith wrote a 2015 letter of support for former Waimana owner Albert Hee, who was sentenced in 2016 to 46 months in prison for filing false tax returns and using company funds for personal expenses. The letters of support were asking the judge for leniency in sentencing.

“The fact that he wrote a letter of support for a person who was later found guilty and fined leads me to believe that he might not take white collar crime as seriously as he should,” True wrote last week.

Smith addressed the issue at Friday’s hearing. He said he was an employee of Hee’s as well as a longtime friend. But Smith said he had no ownership interest in the company. He described Hee’s tax violations as “issues with the IRS.”

“He ran into some financial accounting disclosure issues,” Smith said. “He was charged. He was convicted. He served his time in the criminal justice system. He’s been released for about two years.”

“We were high school classmates,” Smith said. “He continues to be a good friend of mine.”

Maki Morinoue of Holualoa on the Big Island, also addressed Smith’s background in written testimony. “We need to stop nominating developers that hold no background in actual and measurable community care and service,” Morinoue wrote.

“His name and reputation on our island is deeply disturbing with many non Pono initiatives bending rules and regulations to fit his own personal agenda,” she wrote.

Diane Ware of Volcano said she opposes the nomination of retired realtor Karen Ono. Ware said there are other applicants who are more qualified, noting that Ono “has no 4-year degree or background in public land/marine conservation.”

Asked for his take on the criticism, Land Board member Chris Yuen said late Monday he thinks all of the nominees are well qualified and will do fine in their public service roles.

Just because someone doesn’t have a college degree doesn’t mean they lack good judgment — far from it, he said. Many of the nominees have years of service, sitting on various board and committees, and are very capable of putting the public’s best interest first, said Yuen, whose term ends in June .

Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said if the full Senate approves the five nominations it will swing the composition of the board. In his view the majority of board members do not have a conservation, scientific or cultural resource management focus in their backgrounds.

But he also sees an opportunity. Perhaps with new people on the board, it’ll be possible to break what he sees as longstanding patterns in the way the Department of Land and Natural Resources makes decisions, patterns that “have created concerns, conflicts and pain” for people with deep connections to Hawaii’s environmental and cultural integrity, Tanaka said.

Some of the major upcoming issues the board will deal with include management of Mauna Kea and its telescopes, military leases, public and ceded land lease extensions, water leases for East Maui, commercial aquarium collection and community based subsistence fishing areas.

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