Petty politics over prison


POSTED: Thursday, October 01, 2009

Gov. Linda Lingle was wrong to shelve plans for a new prison complex on Maui because she was peeved by the public opposition of one Valley Isle legislator.

If the $235 million Maui Regional Public Safety Complex is truly a key component of a series of improvement projects statewide, as the governor claimed in promoting it in 2008, then legitimate questions about the size, design and price of the facility should not scuttle it.

The Republican governor has made her point — that Democratic lawmakers may pay a price for crossing her, and should not continually belittle and undermine her efforts without offering solutions of their own.

But it doesn't seem that state Sen. Shan Tsutsui (D, Wailuku-Kahului) was engaging in mindless criticism in the first place, and a chief executive who is a true leader should be able to handle reasonable dissent from the opposing party, as well as from within his or her own.

Tsutsui, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, was quoted in the Maui News as saying that lawmakers had a long-standing disagreement with the Lingle administration over the size, design and high price of the prison complex planned for Puunene, and that the two sides were “;not even close”; on an agreement to proceed.

Lingle responded with a letter to Tsutsui saying that his “;clear expression of opposition”; indicated there wasn't enough legislative support to move forward and her administration would scrap the project, for which an environmental assessment had already begun.

State officials had been aiming for a 2012 completion date on the prison complex, to be built on 38 acres in Puunene.

The plans call for a 608-bed facility for minimum- and medium-security prisoners, plus support functions such as intake services, health care, drug and sex offender treatment programs, parole programs, education and vocational services.

Public Safety Director Clayton Frank said Lingle sent the letter because she was perplexed and disturbed by Tsutsui's opposition to a project that would create jobs on Maui and replace the aging and badly overcrowded Maui Community Correctional Facility.

He said the administration recognized the price was high, but was looking for alternative financing, and that Tsutsui apparently hadn't seen a project redesign that addressed lawmakers' earlier objections.

Frank indicated that the project still could move forward if the Lingle administration, Tsutsui and other lawmakers could “;iron out some stuff.”;

That's exactly what should happen.

The Maui prison project should ultimately succeed or fail on its own merits, not because one politician publicly challenged a more powerful one.