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Good News: A Small Elite No Longer Runs Hawaii

Bad News: Nobody Does

(page 4 of 4)

Richard Harris of the Sierra Club says development can move
forward today if companies seek community input and address
legitimate concerns.
Photo courtesy of Richard Harris

The power of lawsuits

Perhaps the most obvious change in Hawaii’s power landscape has been the growing clout of environmental, Native Hawaiian and related interest groups. A generation ago, developers scarcely gave them a thought; today, with a mix of grassroots organizing and litigation, nonprofits like the Sierra Club, Kahea and Life of the Land have become gatekeepers for almost every major project in the Islands. This is part of the democratization of power, as control over change has broadened from an elite to more people. But critics point out that almost every time Native Hawaiian or environmental groups have stopped a project, the telling blow has been a lawsuit. This reliance suggests that these interest groups only have the power to stop things, not the power to get things done.

Bill Meheula, an attorney who has worked both as a development litigator and as a pro bono representative for Native Hawaiian groups, acknowledges that the threat of lawsuits has radically changed how business gets done, adding to the cost and time of development in Hawaii. But he points out that litigation is only possible because these groups have been successful at getting laws passed that support their interests. “I think that the lobbying efforts have grown in favor of environmentalists and Native Hawaiians,” he says. That effort, the steady application of the political process, is the true source of power for these groups, he says. In this way, they’re not that different from the Labor Movement in the middle of the 20th century.

Robert Harris, executive director of the Sierra Club, uses the Superferry as an example. “Superferry was very obvious to most lawyers,” he says of the early decision by the Lingle administration to bypass an environmental impact statement. “The decision made by the administration was just wrong. Even the state auditor knew that this was a clear violation of the law,” Harris says. In other words, the demise of Superferry is another example of a failure of leadership, a misguided attempt to circumvent a legal process.

New way to power

But, according to Harris, it doesn’t have to be that way. He points to First Wind’s Kaheawa alternative-energy project on Maui as an example of a company that found a way to get things done. “That was a company that really went out and engaged the community,” Harris says. “And it’s a project that, when they went for their permits, actually had significant environmental issues. It was on conservation land; there were endangered species issues; there were water issues. But they actually had strong community support.”

Hannemann points out that this is simply the new reality of power in Hawaii. “Don’t just come here to sell a project based on ‘It will create jobs,’ ” he says. “That’s not enough anymore. You need to incorporate some community benefits. You need to say why this would be good for this particular community. And you’ve got to sell it. You can’t look to a political person or a fancy PR firm to do it for you. You’ve got to go out and do it yourself. If your idea is a good idea, if your project is a good project, it will stand the test of time and scrutiny.”

But it’s probably not the mayor’s consultative side that gets the attention of Hawaii’s power mavens. It’s his political ability to get things done in the face of strong opposition. “Maybe it’s just me,” says Dave Heenan, “but my own sense is that people respect can-do leaders. I think people are somewhat burned out by all this consensus seeking. It ends up being just meeting after meeting, and all of a sudden, the window of opportunity closes.” So, even some of those who do not like the mayor, or are ambivalent about rail, find themselves quietly rooting for his success.

Heenan notes with dry approval, “Hannemann – for all he is and isn’t – at least had the balls to take on this thing.”



Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

Dec 13, 2009 12:53 pm
 Posted by  JohnKSmith

Good News: A small elite no longer runs Hawaii -- Bad News: Mufi thinks he can change that

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