New panel to hear revised Akaka Bill
STORY SUMMARY »
The Hawaii advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold its first public hearing tomorrow on the "Akaka Bill" since new members, some of whom are critics of the measure, were appointed to the board.
Some committee members objected to the short notice before the hearing.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka's bill would recognize native Hawaiians status as an indigenous people and establish a process for official U.S. recognition of a native Hawaiian representative body.
Opponents say the bill is racially discriminatory.
The committee will discuss changes made to the bill in an attempt to meet objections from the Justice Department and the White House.
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Some members of Hawaii's advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are raising concerns about their first public hearing tomorrow to debate a bill to federally recognize native Hawaiians, claiming its scheduling was rushed and the agenda set without consultation.
At least three of the committee's 17 newly elected members sent letters to Chairman Michael Lilly complaining that the meeting was "suddenly" arranged by the commission's staff in Washington, D.C. A public hearing notice was posted in the Federal Register on Aug. 8.
"This seems highly unusual and does not follow the open, transparent process that needs to be in place," wrote member Jackie Young. "It appears that the process has turned into one that is dictated by the bureaucracy in Washington regardless of local community input."
Member Robert Alm, senior vice president for public affairs at Hawaiian Electric Co., said he will miss the meeting because of the short notice.
"Is there some kind of rush to judgment here? Is there going to be an attempt to have a bunch of meetings in August and say, 'OK, we checked with the public already, let's vote?' " he asked. "That's not OK. The public needs time to be notified."
The hearing on the so-called Akaka Bill, named after Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, comes six years after the state committee -- which helps the national commission analyze local civil rights cases -- issued a 56-page report urging the federal government to "accelerate" passage of the measure. The commission, however, denounced the bill last year as being racially discriminatory, a reference used by the Bush administration to reject the legislation.
William Burgess, a staunch Akaka Bill opponent recently appointed to the committee, said tomorrow's meeting is timely because people need to debate changes made to the bill's language since its introduction seven years ago.
"It was a little bit rushed," he said. "But I don't think it is a rush considering the importance of the bill."
He noted other public hearings are set for Wednesday on Maui, Sept. 7 on Kauai and Sept. 10 on the Big Island. Panelists at tomorrow's meeting, at 1 p.m. at the state Capitol auditorium, include state Attorney General Mark Bennett, who will back the bill, and Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Va., who argues the bill is unconstitutional and race-based.
The meetings on the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act come as supporters fear that Burgess and other critics of the bill now sitting on the Hawaii committee may push for a new report that could negatively influence Congress.
"The public perception of the committee being stacked now is a very real concern," said David Forman, outgoing chairman of the committee.
The appointments of attorneys Burgess and Paul Sullivan, as well as James Kuroiwa Jr., who joined taxpayers in a lawsuit challenging state funding of Hawaiian programs, were made to make the committee diverse, said Kenneth Marcus, staff director of the commission.
Marcus, a Bush appointee, said he has tried since 2004 to add balance to local civil rights committees all across the country that have been considered too liberal, a move that has created some controversy in Washington. In April, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he was concerned about allegations that nominations to advisory committees in his home state of Michigan and in Virginia were done without proper consultation by Marcus.
"This has led to some controversy by people who don't want a change in this area. We've had criticism by some, and others have been pleased by it," Marcus said. "I would have concerns if everyone felt the same way about important civil rights issues and I'm pleased we have individuals across the spectrum."