The members of the State Senate Committee on Water and Land almost unanimous think that Carleton Ching is a “nice guy” and an “honorable man.”
“If you are not confirmed, I really do hope we can find a way for you to serve us, because your skills are very much needed.” noted committee member Maile Shimabukuru, and O`ahu Democrat.
But like most of her fellow committee members, she doesn’t think he’s the right man to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources. The committee has voted 5-2 against Governor David Ige’s nomination of Carleton Ching to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources. The nomination now goes to the full senate with a negative recommendation.
Voting “Aye” on a motion “to NOT ADVISE AND CONSENT to the nomination”—in other words, to oppose it—were Committee Chair Laura Thielen and Sens. Shimabukuro, Russell Ruderman, and Gil Riviere; voting “aye” with reservations was Sen. Les Ihara; “nay” (supporting the nomination” were Committee Vice Chair Brickwood Galuteria and Sen. Sam Slom. Ruderman (D-Puna) was the only Big Island senator serving on the committee.
The committee heard two days of testimony in which opponents, especially conservationists and environmental groups, questioned Ching’s lack of experience in conservation, his work as a lobbyist for developer Castle and Cook, and his position with the Land Use Research Foundation, or LURF, which has lobbied for the weakening of environmental protections and historic preservation. The criticism grew so vociferous that Thielen actually apologized to Ching’s family for having to sit through it. But that didn’t prevent Thielen, herself a former DLNR chair, from grilling Ching, or from expressing her negative impressions of Ching’s responses. She especially focused on Ching’s professed ignorance of some of the anti-environmental stands that LURF had publicly espoused, including LURF’s support of the Public Land Development Corporation, the short-lived government organization that would have sponsored “public/private partnerships” to develop state lands, but which died due to massive public opposition. As Ruderman noted, about 90 percent of those testifying opposed Ching’s nomination, and those who favored it came almost exclusively from the development community.
“It seems irresponsible for someone who was on a Board of Directors for nearly a decade to be completely unfamiliar with repeated lobbying positions taken by his employees over that entire period of time,” Thielen wrote on her Facebook page at the end of the first day of testimony. “It’s worrisome that he wouldn’t be familiar with the public concerns about allowing developments to bypass zoning and land use laws, when that was such a big debate recently. But the most discouraging part to me was that he didn’t understand that the very development permits that he supported eliminating are the exact permits that our Supreme Court ordered the State and counties to make sure that traditional and cultural gathering rights are protected, and public rights to access public beaches are protected. If you don’t have these permits, then there is no way to ensure that coastal developments can’t cut off access to shoreline for surfing, gathering, swimming, or spiritual refreshment for our many residents who are jammed into lower-rent housing in our inland areas.”
When testimony was over, Thielen recommended against affirming the nomination. She began her statement by quoting Article 12 of the State Constitution, which enshrines native Hawaiian gathering and access rights.
“To me, Article 12 and the other article on the public trust doctrine for our state lands and our private lands in our state is the very essence of what makes Hawaii unique,” she said, noting that the article established “not just Native Hawaiian rights, but the right of the public to access public lands.” She cited a court ruling that established that hotels could not shut the public out of public beaches.
“If the public beaches are public lands, then we have the right to access them. These rights are not a balance. These rights should not be compromised,” she maintained. “…The chair of the Dept. of Land and Natural resources makes many, many, many, many decisions within that agency that never reach the board, that never rise to the level of attention of the governor. Every day they are approached by people who are competing for the immediate use of resources for their immediate gain or personal desires. They are the one voice in the cabinet, often arguing with the governor, often arguing with the other member of the cabinet, to speak to the fiduciary obligation…to future generations and their rights to access those resources, their rights to have open space.…”
After listening to him, she said, “I just didn’t see that commitment and understanding on these constitutional rights and on the rights and values of the resources just in their natural state and how to weigh that against the demands of private property owners for the immediate profit at the expense of the long term resources.”
Even Galuteria and Slom acknowledged that they had problems with some of Ching’s responses. “Some of the things that were revealed in this particular process for me were rather curious,” admitted Galuteria, including “The obvious question of your LURF participation.” But he took Ching at his word that he could transfer his loyalties from Castle and Cook to the state. “You’re being portrayed as a company man, someone who will do the bidding of the company. If confirmed by the full Senate, you will be THIS company man…We will expect that loyalty of you for the state o f Hawaii.” And he noted that previous DLNR chairs had come from corporate backgrounds and succeeded, though they hadn’t to deal with such organized opposition—or “advocacy,” as he called it.
Slom, the Senate’s lone Republican, also acknowledged the strength of that organized opposition.
“We have very strong and positive environmental laws. We have very strong and positive environmental organizations. If this person is confirmed, you are not going to let him get away with anything.”
Slom noted that he had opposed the PLDC and some of the projects that Ching had advocated as a Castle and Cooke lobbyist. But he also said he was “a businessman. I’m proud of it,” and maintained that businessmen, not the government, were needed to rescue the state from its economic doldrums.
“When a nominee comes before us…and we ask him questions and give him a colonoscopy as we have with this nomination, you have a choice. You can believe what the nominee says, or not. You can believe what the governor says, or not,” he said. He chose to believe Ching and the governor.
Ruderman spoke at greater length than any senator aside from Thielen. While he acknowledged that Ching was “A very nice man, an honorable man with obvious integrity, very likeable,” he felt that his nomination “will harm the future of our state…. Not just potential harm to the environment or our precious resource, but the certain harm to our trust in public government..”
“I accept in some cases I may not politically like a nominee but they still may be qualified, but that is not the case here,” he maintained, observing that Ching had “no real experience or aptitude for the mission.” He called Ching’s nomination “The PLDC issue times ten: instead of a branch of the DLNR devoted to development, we’re now looking at refocusing the at entire department through the lens of development, instead of stewardship and preservation.” And he echoed a DLNR employee’s testimony that “The nominee’s entire career track has been the polar opposite of DLNR’s mission.” Like other committee members, he was troubled by Ching’s “effort to distance himself” from LURF’s activities. He was also troubled by Ching’s repeated referenced to land as “a piece of dirt” – phrase that he found indicative of Ching’s attitude.
“If there are no better qualified applicants, then the answer is to cast a wider net,” he said, and suggested promoting someone from within the DLNR itself.
Riviera was also unimpressed by Ching’s answers, which he thought were often evasive, and with Ching’s lack of knowledge of environmental law. “The lens you see things through….ultimately was a deciding factor,” he told the nominee. “We’re almost asking you to come to DLNR and act against your own instincts.”
Oddest of all was Les Ihara’s commentary. A fence sitter to the last, he said he would oppose Ching’s nomination in committee—“with reservations,” but support it on the Senate floor next week—also “with reservations.”