Senators should not use rubber stamps -- or rubber hoses
DLNR director Peter Young's reappointment has dragged through five days of hearings.
A STATE Senate committee has turned the reconfirmation of Peter Young into an unwarranted political inquisition, given the lack of public disclosure of any substantive grievances against him.
In the coming days, Democratic Senate leaders -- including Russell Kokubun, chairman of the panel that will vote on whether to recommend Young to their colleagues, and President Colleen Hanabusa -- will be obliged to explain fully the reasons and motives for the unprecedented tactics they have allowed in hearings for the Department of Land and Natural Resources director.
If the committee rejects Young -- and it should not -- its members should stand up to justify their decisions specifically or bear the public perception that partisan politics prevailed in denying Republican Gov. Linda Lingle her choice to lead an important agency.
At the outset of his tenure, Young had been criticized by community, Hawaiian and environmental groups for his controversial stances and department operations, but since then has won their support. Nearly 500 individuals and organizations -- many of the same ones that had once called for his removal -- spoke in favor of his reappointment.
The hearings stretched through an unusual five days, some sessions conducted secretly because testimony involved possible criminal violations in the agency's Bureau of Conveyances. Young is not a target of the investigation and, in fact, had asked the state attorney general to look into the matter.
Where the probe stands is unclear, but a public union official, in testifying against Young, said 36 bureau employees had filed labor grievances during Young's administration. Though he didn't know the outcome of those grievances, they suggest a troubled group of employees in an office where work has been backlogged for years.
Four bureau employees were subpoenaed to testify behind closed doors. Another nine individuals also were called to hearings, including a lawyer representing Jimmy Pflueger, the Kauai landowner who could be held liable for the Ka Loko Dam disaster that killed seven people last year. Predictably, the lawyer blamed Young and the state for not inspecting the dam, and refused to answer questions about Pflueger's role in the catastrophe, adding little value to the deliberations.
The committee heard from disgruntled current and former employees, and while some might have valid complaints, their concerns must be weighed in the context of a department that had major problems before Young took over, the Legislature's continuing failure to provide sufficient funds and the progress that has been made despite financial obstacles. Moreover, without Young at the helm, the sprawling department with huge responsibilities stands to lose ground.
The opposition to Young among Senate leaders is puzzling. Their subpoena-happy tactics and Kokubun's demand that Young testify under oath -- a first for a nominee up for Senate confirmation -- seem to be stage managing to create an impression that there has been misconduct. In addition, Kokubun's refusal to allow the governor to speak on Young's behalf was disrespectful not only of Lingle, but of the office she holds.
Hanabusa, in her first year as Senate president, seems willing to give her lieutenants some independence, which might be necessary to retain their support. That's fine, but integrity should prompt her to draw the line when it comes to political vilification.