Mauna Kea and a BNLR Memberʻs Conflict of interest

One board member voted on new Mauna Kea emergency rules despite also serving on the board of another organization that received a grant from a TMT charitable fund. Should he have disqualified himself from voting?

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By: Zuri Aki, Chad Ahia, Davin Vicente

This past Friday, the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR), the governing body of the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), approved emergency rules restricting access to Mauna Kea. This BLNR decision arises amid a conflict between Kanaka Maoli organizations and the Thirty-Meter-Telescope (TMT) organization (and its affiliates including the University of Hawai‘i), which has been extensively covered by local, national, and international news for the past few months. Here, the State of Hawai‘i has placed the financial and scientific interests of the TMT organization over the cultural, environmental, and scientific interests of Kanaka Maoli. These new rules will allow DLNR to remove Kanaka Maoli protectors from Mauna Kea, where they have remained since the beginning of this conflict (over 100 days).

The Hawaiian Islands is a place of conflicting interests. The State of Hawai‘i has existed for the past 56 years and it was established amid a very chaotic conflict of, well, interests: 

  • 122 years ago, the Hawaiian government was overthrown and a sympathetic regime to the United States interests was installed; 
  • 117 years ago, the United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands, without treaty (illegal annexation), and despite opposition from a substantial Hawaiian population; 
  • 115 years ago, the United States made the Hawaiian Islands its territory, commencing the tyrannical reign of an oligarchical territorial government (“the Big Five”) with self-serving corporate interests; 
  • and on and on.

Some of the most apparent of these conflicts, today, are between environmental organizations seeking to conserve the natural environment and finite natural resources in the Hawaiian Islands for future generations and land developers who dangle jobs in convincing the public that it is necessary to pave over the last remnants of Hawai'i’s open spaces.

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Other more apparent conflicts are between Kanaka Maoli (“Native Hawaiian”) organizations (which are most-often times also environmental organizations) seeking to perpetuate their cultural practices for future generations and those same land developers that uproot Kanaka Maoli identity amid the grinding mechanical symphony of the construction industry orchestra.

Not always apparent, despite being in plain view, are those conflicts that comprise the seemingly inescapable socio-political-economic system that pervades the lives of each and every one of us here in Hawai‘i. Some of Hawai‘i’s largest economic sectors include tourism and construction, and yet, both economic sectors seem reliant on conflicting assets: natural beauty vs urban sprawl.

Perhaps, none of these conflicts are more cringe-worthy than the public official, who is elected with the confidence of the general public to represent the public’s best interest, but ultimately serves their own. The prevalence of such a thing has inspired pop-culture characterizations of politicians as shady people, but the haunting realization is if it weren’t true or even necessary, then anti-corruption laws would be a thing of fiction. Hawai‘i has its fair share of anti-corruption laws, but it has also faltered in that enforcement.

Amid the highly contested BLNR hearing this past Friday, most seemed to be unaware of another possible conflict of interest – one that could have prevented the BLNR from following through with a 5-2 vote in favor of the new rules (and in favor of the TMT organization) and perhaps one that could have prevented the BLNR from voting on the TMT’s sublease.

Stanley H. Roehrig was appointed by former Governor Abercrombie as a member of the BLNR and is an attorney on Hawai‘i island. A clip of Roehrig’s response to a testifier at the Friday hearing has been circulating social media. Roehrig repeatedly states that he is “on the side of law and order.” As an attorney, Roehrig should have intimate knowledge of “the side of law and order” and a just-as-intimate knowledge in the state ethics code and rules of professional responsibility. The issue here is whether Roehrig was “on the side of law and order,” as he so adamantly put it.

Roehrig is a director of the non-profit organization, Keaukaha One Youth Development. According to Hawai‘i Community Foundation, Keaukaha One Youth Development was a grant recipient of its THINK fund. According to the TMT organization, which Roehrig basically voted in favor for, stated,

“[T]he Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) launched THINK (The Hawaii Island New Knowledge) Fund to better prepare Hawaii Island students to master STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and to become the workforce for higher paying science and technology jobs in Hawaii’s 21st century economy. TMT’s founding gift of $1 million marks the beginning of the construction phase of astronomy’s next-generation telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.”

Screen Shot 2015 07 14 At 01.48.06 PmHawai‘i Revised Statutes § 84-14(a)(1) states, “No employee shall take any official action directly affecting: (1) A business or other undertaking in which the employee has a substantial financial interest[.]”

This statute is echoed in The State Ethics Code under the heading, “Conflicts of Interest,” under the subheading, “Disqualification,” wherein it states, “You must disqualify yourself from taking any official action directly affecting a business or undertaking in which you have a substantial financial interest.”

The rule for disqualification is no clearer than it has been stated by the BLNR: “Any member having any interest, direct or indirect, in any matter before the board must disqualify him/herself from voting on or participating in the discussion of the matter.”

Stanley H. Roehrig voted in favor of the new emergency rules, which would restrict access to Mauna Kea and seemingly present the final solution of the State of Hawai‘i, under the Ige administration, to remove Kanaka Maoli from their sacred mountain and impede their efforts to protect it from further development. Prior to his latest vote, Roehrig voted on the TMT's sublease, which allowed the TMT to begin construction atop Mauna Kea.

Conflicting interests in Hawai‘i are undoubtedly an ongoing issue. The conflict between the Mauna Kea protectors and the TMT organization has taken into full scope the measure of our future as the people of the Hawaiian Islands and possibly even the future of human kind itself. As we gaze across the vast horizon of our world to the dawning of our future, we ought to consider the ground upon which we stand, for we will undoubtedly carry it with us on the soles of our feet, in the many years to come. Are the days of “behind closed doors” and “under the table” deals coming to an end? Or is Hawai‘i firmly rooted in this kind of politics?

By Zuri Aki, Chad Ahia and Davin Vicente Zuri Aki has a B.A. in Hawaiian Studies from the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa and is currently a student at Richardson School of Law focusing on International Law and Environmental Law. He is the founder of the community organization, Makawalu, and the environmental conservation organization, The ‘Āina Project.

Chad Ahia is a native Hawaiian and a medical researcher with a specific interest in bioethics. Raised on Hawai'i island under the magnificent presence of Mauna Kea, he is interested in the application of ethical frameworks to guide future scientific development of the mountain that respects environmental protection and native Hawaiian rights.

Davin Vicente is from Hawai'i island and has a bachelor's degree in cellular and molecular biology and a masters in tropical conservation biology and environmental science from UH Hilo. He currently works as a biology lecturer at UH Hilo and as a biological technician.