Archive for January 2011

A friend of the court

January 31, 2011

I met Supreme Court nominee Sabrina McKenna for the first time Saturday and got a little chance to talk with her before an event in Kalihi.

Then a few minutes after the program started, my BlackBerry beeped and it was a message from Facebook that the soon-to-be Justice McKenna had sent me a friend invitation.

At first, my ego soared; I thought she had been so bowled by the force of my personality in the few words we exchanged that she felt a need to cement our friendship at once.

But she was sitting only a few rows in front of me, and I became suspicious when I saw that she seemed to be paying attention to the program and not sending out messages on Facebook.

Sure enough, I got an e-mail yesterday from one of her real friends advising me that the judge doesn’t do Facebook and the account in her name had been set up by an impostor. By noon, the bogus account was gone and I no longer had a friend in black robes.

My wounded ego was salved a little when I saw I wasn’t the only current or former media person taken in by the fake Sabrina; others who responded to the friend requests included Nestor Garcia, Dan Cooke, Robert Kekaula, Guy Hagi, Malia Zimmerman, Vicki Viotti and Lee Cataluna.

Judge McKenna seemed like a very nice lady from our brief encounter. I hope we can still hang out.

New challenge, old arguments, on rail

January 31, 2011

A coalition of community groups led by former Gov. Ben Cayetano has scheduled a news conference today (12:30 p.m. On the city hall steps) to try to convince people that the fight to stop the $5.5 billion O‘ahu rail project isn’t over.

It’ll be interesting to see if it’s just the same old talk or if they have something new up their sleeves, such as a credible legal challenge to the rail environmental impact statement or a plan to shift some City Council votes.

If they’re not ready to move beyond the talk, rail is getting awfully close to being a done deal, with federal and state approval of the EIS, an apparent resolution on how to deal with burial sites found along the route, the city moving forward on creating a transit authority and the feds granting approval to begin transit-related construction such as moving utilities.

There are legitimate concerns about whether federal funds will come through with Republicans gaining power in Congress and whether the city’s half-cent excise tax for transit will raise enough to pay for the project, but the city has deflected questions about finances and gotten away with it because opponents have failed to mount political pressure to force answers.

A pro-rail referendum was passed by voters in 2008, a charter amendment to create the transit authority won easy approval in 2010, the anti-rail candidate finished a distant third in the last two mayoral elections and opponents have failed to make rail a pivotal issue in any council race.

Hardly a political mandate for Mayor Peter Carlisle and the council to change course.

The Cayetano group, which includes architects, Hawaii’s 1000 Friends, the League of Women Voters, Life of the Land and the Outdoor Circle, is focused on an old issue — the visual blight of the all-elevated commuter train — that has already been widely discussed without shifting public opinion. From their statement:

We believe the City’s proposed elevated heavy rail project will destroy mauka-makai view planes, create a physical barrier between the city and our famed waterfront and disturb Native Hawaiian burial grounds along its right-of-way.

Also, we believe that the proposed system will be an intrusion on the landscape, will forever alter the character of the communities through which it is built and will negatively impact the lives of people who live and work in Honolulu’s urban core.

“The City seems to have convinced the media that rail transit has permission to start construction, that ‘it’s over,’ ” the opponents said in their statement. “It’s far from over.”

That likely depends on whether they can either change the politics or bring a court challenge that convinces a judge that ugly is illegal.

Abercrombie is all foot-in-mouth on Obama birth

January 28, 2011

President Barack Obama must be getting pretty steamed at Gov. Neil Abercrombie for his bumbling grandstand play that stirred up the Obama birth controversy all over again.

The non-issue had pretty much settled down with most reasonable Americans accepting that Obama is a U.S. citizen born in Hawai‘i — until Abercrombie announced with much fanfare that he’d use his new powers as governor to prove once and for all that Obama was born here.

That got the crazies stirred up anew, and when Abercrombie abandoned his effort after finding there was nothing more he could do to certify Obama’s birth beyond what the state had already done, it only amplified the cries of conspiracy.

In the latest bizarre twist, a “celebrity journalist” named Mike Evans, who claimed to be a friend of Abercrombie’s, said on a Minnesota radio station that the Hawai‘i governor told him he was unable to find Obama’s birth certificate despite an intensive search.

Evans later said he “mispoke,” hadn’t talked to Abercrombie and what he said wasn’t true, but not before the story was widely circulated in the national media, getting beyond the usual crackpots to guys with big audiences like Rush Limbaugh and Chris Matthews. Even our own state Sen. Sam Slom bit on the bogus story in his small business newsletter.

So now, because of Abercrombie, an issue that was all but dead will likely dog Obama into the 2012 election. Nice going, bearded one.

In his State of the State speech, Abercrombie told an amusing story about how as a young legislator he was outfoxed by veteran Kaua‘i Rep. Tony Kunimura.

After the Obama birth fiasco, the governor should now ask himself what Kunimura asked him then, “Did you learn anything, college boy?”

Akaka gets no respect

January 27, 2011

The decision of U.S. Senate Democrats to dump Hawai‘i’s 86-year-old Sen. Daniel Akaka as veterans affairs chairman and move him to the less prestigious Indian Affairs Committee is a political surprise.

Senators seldom make such moves for age alone, unless there is a feeling that the member isn’t up to the job anymore. That’s how senior Hawai‘i Sen. Daniel Inouye rose to appropriations chairman over the late Sen. Robert Byrd.

A hint that Akaka is starting to slip is a heck of a message to send Hawai‘i voters as he gears up for a potentially tough re-election campaign against former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, with Democrats fighting an uphill battle to hold their two-vote Senate majority.

If the Democrats are sending Akaka a message that they want him to step aside and let a younger Democrat take on Lingle, it would be interesting to know whom they have in mind.

Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case would likely jump at the chance, but they could turn out to be seriously damaged political goods after their big losses in 2010 — Hannemann for governor and Case for Congress.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa would be pushing it with voters to start campaigning for the Senate halfway through her first term in the House, and U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono is a light achiever who could be a tough sell as the heavy lifter Hawai‘i needs to get ready to pick up the load after Inouye passes from the scene. Would former Gov. John Waihee eye a comeback at 66?

If the Democrats want to move past Akaka, their best bet would be to persuade him to step down sometime this year and let Abercrombie appoint a replacement who could run against Lingle as an incumbent.

But Akaka has resisted such pushes for 20 years, and the fight among Democratic factions over who gets the appointment could become ugly.

Update: If you want to learn how to spin like a pro, check out this press release that just came out.

An uneasy peace on civil unions?

January 26, 2011

The fight over civil unions seems to have entered the battle-fatigue stage.

Despite extra security and high anxiety among some senators, the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on SB 232, the new vehicle to give gay couples the same legal rights as marrieds, was the most subdued ever on the emotional issue as senators heard divided testimony and then voted 3 to 2 to send the measure to the full Senate for approval.

Demonstrators were scarce, and a hearing that heard 18 hours of often-heated testimony last year was kept to a couple of hours this time, with arguments that were considerably milder in tone.

It seems the result of a strong sense on both sides that it’s a foregone conclusion the measure will pass the Legislature this session and be signed into law by new Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Lawmakers approved similar legislation last year, only to have it vetoed but Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.

The issue was pretty much settled in the November election, when sweeping victories by supporters of civil unions made it obvious that a good majority of voters have no serious problem with extending these rights to gay couples.

With the writing so clearly on the wall, it’s a positive sign that the contentious waters seem to be calming so we can move on to implementing the inevitable changes in a smooth and conscientious manner.

Abercrombie sends up an SOS

January 24, 2011

Give Gov. Neil Abercrombie credit for the most optimistic way of delivering a gloomy message I’ve ever heard.

The top headline from his State of the State speech is that our canoe is in serious danger of capsizing, with an $800 million-plus state deficit, a government that can’t meet its core responsibilities, staggering debts for pensions and health care and public facilities in a disgraceful state of disrepair.

But he was so optimistic that we can meet all the challenges without kicking any cans down the road if we all work together that you were left really wanting to believe him.

The governor offered enough specifics to temporarily quiet criticism that his proposed budget won’t be ready until March. He wants to tax pensions and soda pop, eliminate the deduction for state taxes, reallocate funds for the Hawaii Tourism Authority and Aloha Stadium, scale back social services that have lost federal reimbursement, update the state’s Stone Age information technology and embark on a massive public works program to create jobs, rebuild infrastructure and advance priorities such as energy independence.

But it remains to be seen if it all adds up to a program that will plug current shortfalls while planting the seeds for future prosperity.

Abercrombie stressed again and again that he wants to work collaboratively with the Legislature, which is good, but it’s equally important that he be willing to call BS on lawmakers if the work doesn’t get done.

Central to his message is that we need to work in a spirit of shared sacrifice to right our canoe, and the key to that is projecting a sense that the sacrifices are being shared fairly among all segments of the community and all political interests.

He’s starting with his foot in a bit of a hole on that one after one of his first acts was to let his friends in the public worker unions off the hook for some $60 million a year in sacrifices on health insurance premiums — without extracting in exchange any of the concessions he’ll need to change the structure and priorities of state government.

In the end, the governor’s moves in allocating sacrifices will have to pass a nose test more than a rhetorical exam.

UH president draws a full house in new contract

January 24, 2011

I’m always troubled when public officials act entitled to place their personal interests ahead of those of the public they serve, and that’s the feeling I get about University of Hawai’i President M.R.C. Greenwood continuing to receive $5,000 a month to live in housing other than the College Hill mansion provided by the university.

When Greenwood was hired in 2009 at more than $400,000 a year, making her one of the highest-paid state employees, she was given the housing allowance because College Hill was undergoing major renovations.

It was presented at the time as a temporary arrangement until the work was finished, but when that time came, Greenwood still preferred to live elsewhere and said she expected the $5,000 allowance to continue.

The Board of Regents locked in the payment last week when it voted to extend Greenwood’s contract for three years until 2015 with little opportunity for comment by the public or university community.

If Greenwood doesn’t want to live at the perfectly good mansion provided her, that’s her business, but she should pay for other accommodations herself.

It’s unreasonable to expect UH to foot the bill for alternate housing; $5,000 is an awful lot of housing even by Hawai‘i standards, and such extravagance is ill-timed when the university is struggling to make ends meet, its flagship campus is in disrepair and many students can’t get the classes they need.

UH says College Hill is needed for fundraising events, but that’s just an excuse to justify what Greenwood wants to do. Such events were always held at the mansion when the president lived there; the place comes with a full staff, and it’s not as if she has to wash the dishes herself afterward.

When university officials arrive at the Legislature pleading poverty and asking for more funding at the expense of other needy state programs, lawmakers should ask questions about the need to house the president in double luxury.

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