New board already may be shifting coffee group’s mission
The Kona Coffee Council's board declines to support bills to create stricter standards for using the Kona label
In what could signal a shift in the mission of a major Hawaii coffee trade association, the Kona Coffee Council board this week declined to support two bills that would create stricter labeling requirements for coffee carrying the Kona name.
One bill would require packages with the Kona name to contain at least 75 percent Kona coffee, the other at least 50 percent Kona coffee. The current law allows the Kona name on blends containing just 10 percent Kona coffee.
On Thursday, in the first action taken by a new board of directors impaneled after a controversial election, proponents of the bills failed to rally enough board votes to throw the Kona Coffee Council's support behind the measures.
A motion to support the bills as written gathered six votes in favor and five against, said George Fike, the council's secretary. Although that was a majority, that was two votes shy of the eight votes needed to pass a resolution, Fike said. A second motion, to back revised versions of the bills, also failed to gain the needed eight votes, Fike said.
Following the meeting, parties on both sides began offering their interpretations.
Among them was Jim Wayman, a Kona Coffee Council member and president of Honolulu's Hawaii Coffee Co., one of the state's largest blenders and the maker of the Lions Coffee and Royal Kona brands. In an e-mail message, Wayman said he opposed the bills because they represent "too radical ... a change and there have been no marketing studies completed to guide the industry as to (their) impact."
"A large majority defeated the motion and as a result the Kona Coffee Council does not support House Bill 1974 or House Bill 2163," he wrote.
Others offered a different interpretation.
"Neither one of them passed, but that doesn't mean we're opposed to it," said Bob Foerster, the board's vice president. "It just means we have to think about it more. It may come up again in March."
Fike and Foerster both said that they personally oppose the bills but voted for them because the vast majority of the members who commented at Thursday's meeting were for the bills.
"Not more than one or two out of the 30 or 40 who were there were opposed to it," Foerster said.
But board member Donna Woolley said there were just 25 to 30 people at the meeting, and that was not enough to sway her.
"You can't just make a decision based on the voices of a handful of people," she said.
Colehour Bondera, a board member who supports the bills, said the board's failure to act suggests the council is shifting from its stated mission: "To promote and protect 100% Kona coffee."
Bondera and others have questioned the extensive use of proxy votes from newly registered council members during a board election last month, saying it appeared that some candidates had bought votes in an effort to refashion the board and give the council's control to processors and blenders, such as Wayman. Thursday's vote seems to bear out that hypothesis, Bondera said.
"The new board decided not to represent the members' position on pending legislation that supports the council's mission," he said. "They had an opportunity, and they did not take a stand."