Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, February 16, 1999

David Murdock’s
sharpest Lanai critic

THE Wall Street Journal uses no photos on its front pages. It prefers thumbprint size sketches. Two figures from Hawaii's tiny Lanai island have been thus featured for national audiences -- David H. Murdock, whose Castle & Cooke owns 98 percent of the island, and Ron McOmber, owner of a small fee-simple lot on the other 2 percent.

Murdock revolutionized life for Lanai's nearly 3,000 residents by replacing the island's famous but dying pineapple industry with tourism in 1990-91.

McOmber, his sharpest critic, is under court order to stay off the private 98 percent unless he has advance permission to enter. We still enjoyed a cup of coffee together on the veranda of The Lodge at Koele, a Murdock-built wonderful, gardened retreat at the cool 1,700-foot level of central Lanai.The real thrust of the court order is in another direction, as I will explain shortly.

Differences aside, McOmber wants Lanai's hotels to run as full as possible and visitors to have want-to-return experiences. Full employment for Lanai's 3,000 people motivates him. Murdock has obvious corporate interests in the same result plus a genuine affection for the island, to which he retreats at least twice a year.

But their differences are significant:

bullet McOmber led a group, Lanaians for Sensible Growth, that defeated plans to partially privatize the beach in front of the Manele Bay Hotel, a 240-room Moorish-style pleasure palace opened in 1991, a year after the 102-room Koele.

bullet McOmber has challenged water usage, contending the hotels and golf courses may be depleting long-term water reserves. The company counters with hydrology studies to the contrary. The court order against McOmber was obtained after he stated at a public hearing that he had gone onto private company property to take regular water meter readings.

bullet McOmber says Murdock has not kept promises, including repair of the twisty road to Manele and moving Lanai people into management.

The current issue concerning McOmber is the tiny rock-surrounded harbor at Kuamalapa'u. To it barges deliver over 90 percent of all supplies for Lanai. They used to take its pineapples to Honolulu to can. McOmber was a harbor co-manager and also a tender pilot. The port badly needs a new $15-million breakwater, he says. Safer passage for vessels could reduce Lanai's high living costs.

McOmber is articulate, stocky, bald, jut-jawed and 59. He has an affinity for tank tops and T-shirts that contrasts with Murdock's careful grooming. McOmber left California for Hawaii in 1968 after a family breakup, remarried in Honolulu and relocated to Lanai in 1971 to start a scuba operation that failed. On Oahu he had pushed a move for state licensing of scuba divers that dramatically reduced the number of scuba deaths.

While doing battle with Murdock he has been a state employee, first in charge of maintenance at Lanai Hospital, now as chief of maintenance at the small airport, to which he has added more planting. When he was at the hospital, the company questioned his frequent time-offs to testify at public hearings against it. It was told he worked so many uncharged overtime hours he had earned far more compensatory time off than was used.

AFTER the Wall Street Journal front-paged his confrontation with Murdock in 1995, Gov. Ben Cayetano wrote to him in Murdock's defense. He didn't answer but Murdock later introduced him to the governor. Now he may be more friendly with the governor than Murdock since Murdock was a fund-raiser for the Republican Party in last year's election.

McOmber was able to call on the governor last month to urge the state to go ahead on the breakwater project. A federal appropriation is available but only if the state and/or Castle & Cooke can come up with 25 percent of the $15-million cost. Since Castle & Cooke has yet to make a profit on its $400-million Lanai investment, there may be hard negotiations.

This confrontation between a corporate giant and a mere but not-so-average laborer is a tale we can label: "Only in America."

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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