DOCARE should remain part of DLNR


POSTED: Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's hard to believe it's been 17 years since our state Legislature shifted the responsibility for Hawaii's recreational boating facilities from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Those who were around at the time may remember that along with the boating programs and infrastructure, the DLNR took control over what was then known as the marine patrol.

This marine patrol was similar to today's Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement in that its officers wore uniforms and had badges and guns. But in the early 1990s boaters actually saw them in boats patrolling the marinas in most of our small boat harbors.

The sight of those patrol boats wasn't necessarily a comforting one though, as those officers had gained a reputation for conducting themselves more like authoritarian storm troopers rather than the Coast Guard's more engaging image as emergency responders and providers of boating safety education.

So when the marine patrol personnel were absorbed into DOCARE, with its focus on inland law enforcement, and the state's patrol boats all but disappeared, there were few regrets on the part of boaters.

In fact, the only time boaters even think about DOCARE officers now is when they are outraged to learn how much money comes out of the Boating Special Fund to pay for services most boaters never see.

I bring this up because there is a bill being heard by the Senate (SB 1315) that if passed would transfer DOCARE from the DLNR into the Department of Public Safety in an apparent move to align them with other state law enforcement agencies.

The idea seems to have merit at first blush, but after some considerations, it begins to lose its appeal.

First, as DLNR Chairperson Laura Thielen has testified, DOCARE's officers “;perform a unique and specialized law enforcement service and function.”;

DOCARE's federal law enforcement counterparts in the National Parks Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service were not transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, Thielen argued, because they, like DOCARE officers, perform such unique enforcement and education functions.

Thielen also reminded legislators that the state auditor has found that “;DOCARE's work relies on close and informal interaction with program experts in all DLNR divisions,”; and that it “;can only be accomplished with DOCARE continuing to be a part of DLNR.”;

Various wildlife and conservation organizations, understandably, also voiced their opposition to SB 1315 for many of the same reasons presented by Thielen.

Somewhat surprisingly, even the Department of Public Safety's director Clayton Frank testified in opposition to the bill. And although he echoed many of the points made by Thielen, he also added that there would be a serious conflict in pay scales.

The DOCARE officers are two steps above the Deputy Sheriff level, so if the bill passed into law, the question with no good answer would be whether to upgrade the sheriffs, or to downgrade the DOCARE officers.

For most recreational boaters, of course, the whole question is rather moot because, as they say, “;What's out of sight is out of mind.”;