Posted on: Sunday, October 21, 2007
Special panel would monitor Hawaii ferry
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
State House and Senate leaders are preparing to delegate operating conditions for the Hawaii Superferry to Gov. Linda Lingle — but they want an oversight task force that would serve as an environmental watchdog to monitor ferry service and report to the Legislature every month.
A majority of the 13-member task force would be appointed by the state House speaker and state Senate president and would represent each county and include environmentalists, Hawaiian cultural experts and business leaders.
The task force would also include the president of Hawaii Superferry, the state attorney general, the director of the state Department of Transportation and two other Lingle Cabinet officials.
State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), who suggested the task force in draft legislation that would help Superferry resume service while an environmental review is conducted, said Superferry executives and Lingle administration officials could provide expertise on the task force.
"I think we need the input," Hanabusa said. "I think all people sitting on the oversight committee would want all stakeholders to be at the table."
Some environmentalists, however, are asking why an oversight task force should include a Superferry executive or Lingle administration officials who were responsible for exempting the Superferry from an environmental review.
The state Supreme Court ruled in August that the exemption by the state was an error, and a Maui court ruled this month that Superferry could not use Kahului Harbor until an environmental review is completed.
"This should be an oversight committee, not a cheerleading committee," said Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club Hawai'i chapter. "We would hope there would be some tough love, that we would have some folks who are truly concerned and not simply token members."
The draft legislation, which could be heard in a possible special session this week, would require the Lingle administration to impose operating conditions on the ferry to protect whales and other marine life, prevent the spread of invasive species and preserve cultural and natural resources.
Superferry executives would have to agree to the conditions to resume operations.
While lawmakers could add more suggestions after informational briefings on the Neighbor Islands starting today on Kaua'i, some, especially in the House, are worried that a protracted argument about which conditions should be in the draft could unravel the consensus behind the legislation.
House and Senate leaders hope the task force will function as a monthly check on whether the Lingle administration's conditions are working.
"It's such a critical issue that we need to have people who are watchdogs, and that's what the purpose of the oversight committee will be, to be our eyes," Hanabusa said.
Lawmakers, based on the monthly reports or their own observations, would have the option of adding conditions during the regular session that starts in January. The task force would provide reports at the end of every month, starting in December, and also prepare a final report for the Legislature before the 2009 session.
"So I think we're really trying to address the environmental and cultural impacts. And we're trying to make certain that if the governor doesn't come forward and isn't vigilant enough, we will step forward," said state House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa). "But we're hopeful we won't have to and the executive branch will do what needs to be done."
FINDING A BALANCE
Some lawmakers believe the proposed composition of the task force should be changed to include more environmentalists and community representatives.
Caldwell, who favors more environmentalists on the panel, also defends the inclusion of a Superferry executive.
"They're the ones being impacted by this, they should be at the table," he said.
State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), who wants more community representation, said he understands that some environmentalists might dismiss the task force as window-dressing to compensate for giving Lingle the discretion on operating conditions. But he believes the task force could help lawmakers identify problems.
"If this task force embraces its role, then it could play a meaningful part in oversight," Hooser said.
A Superferry spokesman declined to comment on the task force, saying the company is still reviewing the draft.
Superferry executives, lobbyists and public-relations advisers have been hesitant over the past week to talk publicly about a special session or the details of the draft as those have surfaced at the state Capitol.
Superferry executives have been meeting privately with lawmakers and, according to legislative sources, their attorneys and lobbyists have been suggesting draft language and offering comments.
Sources close to Superferry have said that its executives are concerned that any public comment by them on the draft could be attacked by opponents and undercut their chances during a special session.
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.