Ige’s Department of Land and Natural Development?

Governor Ige's latest DLNR leadership move is a serious blow to advocates for resource protection and the ethical and legal use of water and a boon for development interests.

Karen Chun

“Instead of handing out candy to developers as Neil Abercrombie did, Ige is giving them the key to the candy store.”—David Shapiro

Gov. Ige’s latest move to hand the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) over to developers was to remove William Tam from his position as DLNR Deputy for Water. Prior to his tenure at DLNR, Tam was Deputy Attorney General and played a major role in authoring the water code, which pretty much makes him the expert on it.

Coworkers describe Tam as a strong advocate for the ethical and legal use of water.

Granted, Ige isn’t the first governor to let Tam go. In 1997, Gov. Ben Cayatano fired Tam after he prepared a draft decision in the Waiahole water case restoring water to windward Oahu streams. Both Cayatano and Castle & Cooke were displeased that Tam didn’t side with developers.

Cayatano was accused of firing Tam in retribution for standing up for public trust interests in water. While the State Supreme Court found there was no definitive proof, they made a point to rule in their historic Waiahole decision that:

...it is safe to say that the conduct of the public officials in this case did nothing to improve public confidence in government and the administration of justice in this state.

It is also safe to say that Ige’s purging of successful state agency leaders who follow the law and refuse to bend over for developers and utilities has done nothing to improve public confidence in his government either.

The government that ousted Gary Gill (Department of Health), William Aila, Jesse Souki and Tam (DLNR), and Mina Morita (Public Utilities Commission) is inspiring statements online such as:

It took two years for Gov. Abercrombie to lose my trust. Ige has managed to do it in less than two months.

As if Ige’s removal of these law abiding, conscientious leaders wasn’t bad enough, within the same short time frame, Ige has appointed a developer lobbyist to head the DLNR and chair the Water Commission (Carleton Ching) and appointed another developer lobbyist to be the DLNR first deputy, has hired a Pacific Resource Partnership lobbyist (Cindy McMillan) as his Director of Communications, and has said he is open to the elimination of the Land Use Commission.

What is this love affair with developer lobbyists?

Gov. Ige’s current pick for DLNR chair, Carleton Ching, was on the Castle & Cooke side, against Tam and the DLNR, during the Waiahole case (I’m sensing a trend here in Ige’s hirings and firings). The petition calling on Ige to cancel his nomination of Ching has reached more than 7,000 signatures.

But back to Ige’s latest poor decision.

Compounding Tam’s sins in developer eyes, he schooled Alexander & Baldwin’s East Maui Irrigation (EMI) on kuleana water rights in Keanae. In 1997, about the time Tam was writing the draft Waiahole decision, Maui taro farmers begged DLNR to stop EMI from diverting most of the stream water, saying their crops were dying. In response to their pleas, one of the EMI executives is reputed to have said, “Not one more drop of water.” Tam stepped in and corrected EMI’s misunderstanding of the water code and the primacy of kuleana water rights.

Now here’s a coincidence (or not): East Maui stream flows are back on the Water Commission’s contested case docket, and the commission recently handed down an order that EMI let more water back into those very same streams that Tam defended in 1997. Although Tam is not a voting member of the Water Commission, he does set the priorities and agendas. And once again, he ends up fired.

Congratulations Governor Ige, you’ve successfully removed the entire executive team at DLNR. Chair Aila, first deputy Souki, and now deputy for water William Tam. As one observer asked:

Gov Ige, why did you even do that? Nothing was broken!”

DLNR’s mission is far more difficult now than in years past. In 2008, the enforcement (DOCARE) budget was $1.7 million. The next year it was cut by more than two-thirds, down to $500,000. Last year it was finally increased to about $1.1 million for the entire state.

In the intervening years, coral reefs have been dying and fisheries declining; both the general population and visitors are using resources at a faster rate, but DOCARE still hasn’t seen its budget restored to 2008 levels. Yet, at a recent meeting with stakeholders, Ching suggested that he could “move the needle” with “efficiencies.”

They’ve cut and cut until they’ve cut through the bone and severed limbs. At the same time employees point to the incredible strides made over the last four years using what they did have, and morale was (prior to the purge) at an all time high.

The only “efficiencies” left are those which favor developers—less thorough reviews, skipping reviews, removing knowledgeable staff, etc.

Gov. Ige says he wants to run the government like a business. Every business requires operating capital to stay functional and viable. Ige fancies himself the CEO who runs the state. So where’s DLNR’s operating capital? The refrain of “efficiency” is empty when an agency has cut everything it can and more.

Or did Ige actually mean he wants to run the government like a business by turning DLNR into a development company?  Because by eliminating the most knowledgeable and dedicated leadership and replacing at least two of the three positions with developer lobbyists, it sure doesn’t look like a resource protection agency any more.

What’s next? Replacing Bill Tam with a lobbyist from East Maui Irrigation?

Originally published on Hawaii Political Scene