Archive for February 2011

Good start for the appointed BOE

February 10, 2011

Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s appointment of First Hawaiian Bank chairman and CEO Don Horner to the Board of Education is the first glimpse of the gains we could realize from the new constitutional amendment switching from an elected to an appointed school board.

Horner replaces Lei Ahu Isa, who stepped down in advance of the shift that will come as soon as the Legislature passes enabling legislation.

Abercrombie’s first appointment represents dramatic change: the head of one of Hawai‘i’s biggest and most successful companies replacing a bottom-tier politician once described by former Gov. Ben Cayetano as one of the state’s weakest lawmakers.

Extrapolate upgrades of that magnitude to the entire school board and you can see the possibilities for improving our public schools.

Horner hit all the right notes in accepting the appointment, saying the board should focus on setting clear policies and goals for improvement rather than trying to micromanage the superintendent.

His vow to focus more on the “customers” — students and parents — is welcome, and his description of the Department of Education as an institution with long traditions uninterrupted by progress was on the mark.

Horner was involved in the clumsy attempt by the Business Roundtable last year to derail civil unions, and as with the Rev. Marc Alexander, Abercrombie’s choice for homelessness coordinator, Horner will grate on the governor’s supporters whose political world revolves around that one issue.

But he brings to the table some of the state’s best experience on how to make a big organization work, and Abercrombie deserves kudos for valuing proven expertise over ideological purity in those he recruits to help him attack some of our most vexing problems.

Civil unions near the finish line

February 9, 2011

During the same-sex marriage fight of the 1990’s, I once suggested settling it by taking a couple of the more reasonable advocates for the two sides — the late Tom Gill for the pro’s and Jack Hoag for the anti’s — and locking them in a room until they found a compromise that most people could agree to.

The idea of civil unions wasn’t fully conceived at the time, but I figured something like that was what they’d ultimately come up with.

Taking the word “marriage” out of the equation and making it purely a matter of equal protection under the law, I thought, might strip away some of the strong emotions that were dividing us.

It took a decade and far better minds than mine to pull the concept together, and emotions have by no means been absent from the civil unions debate of the last three years.

But after the November election decisively settled the question of whether voters were OK with extending the legal rights of marriage to gays, I’ve been impressed by the orderly manner in which the issue has moved through the 2011 Legislature.

Both sides have appeared at House and Senate hearings to have their say, but there’s been nowhere near the crowds or rancor of previous years.

With the Senate already passing a civil unions bill and House approval a virtual certainty after the measure won broad support in the Judiciary Committee yesterday, the bill appears on track to clear the Legislature and be signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie within a month.

The reasonably respectful tone of the discussion this year offers hope that we’ll be able to implement the new law in a way that strengthens our community rather than divides us further.

The HPHA drama continues …

February 8, 2011

Those who have been into the Linda Smith story can follow the bouncing ball over at the Star-Advertiser Political Radar blog:

Linda Smith, the former senior policy adviser to Gov. Linda Lingle, is the new caucus manager for state House Minority Leader Gene Ward (R-Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai).
Smith said she was terminated on Thursday as the chief financial management adviser to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority …

Time to pass “death with dignity”

February 7, 2011

A bill to allow terminally ill patients the right to physician-assisted suicide is getting a serious hearing in the Legislature this year after an absence of several sessions.

The political waters have calmed since the last time it came up and Oregon has had more years of experience with its law allowing lethal prescriptions for end-of-life patients, upon which our law would be based, with little evidence of abuse. It’s time for Hawai‘i to extend this right.

The law has actually been used in Oregon less than was expected; mostly, it has served to comfort patients that the option is there if they reach the point where unbearable pain and disability rob their lives of all quality.

Opponents worry that the right to die could become a duty to die for elderly and disabled people whose lives are deemed burdensome by those who would benefit from their death.

But the bill before the Legislature isn’t a euthanasia bill, and few advocates of physician-assisted suicide support mercy killings in which the decision to end life is made by anybody except informed individual patients who are certified to be near death, have gone through a waiting period, received counseling on other alternatives and been screened for mental illness, treatable depression and outside pressure.

Overriding other considerations is that it’s a choice most of us would want for ourselves when our time comes. We can no longer justify denying the comfort to those who need it now.

With no universal right answer on a matter so personal, the decision rightfully belongs to the individual, not the state.

Public housing agency seeks ethics waiver for finance job

February 7, 2011

Linda Smith, senior policy adviser to former Gov. Linda Lingle, has apparently moved into a new position as financial adviser to the Hawai‘i Public Housing Authority, on whose board of directors she served as the governor’s representative.

HPHA is maintaining silence on the matter, with several messages requesting information from executive director Denise Wise and Smith going unanswered. Sources who deal with the agency say Smith has been working there since last month.

HPHA advertised in the fall for a chief financial management adviser, setting a Nov. 4 deadline for applications and listing a salary of $80,000.

Les Kondo, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, confirmed that Smith subsequently asked for advice on whether it would violate the ethics code if she moved from the board of directors to a staff position. She was advised that state statute didn’t prohibit her from taking the position.

However, Kondo said the ethics office is taking another look at the matter after receiving a new request from HPHA last week for a formal waiver to satisfy the federal government, which appears to be paying part of the salary. Kondo said the waiver request had new information about the timing of the move from one position to the other.

At their December 16 meeting, HPHA directors went into executive session to discuss a motion “to approve a waiver from the conflict of interest provisions of Sections 19(A) of the annual contributions contract between the Hawaii Public Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Chief Financial Management Advisor position.”

Directors said the closed meeting was necessary to consult with attorneys on the board’s “powers, duties, privileges, immunities and liabilities” relating to the waiver. After the executive session, the board unanimously approved the waiver without discussion.

The HPHA board is chaired by retired Boeing executive Travis Thompson, one of Lingle’s closest allies as her finance director on Maui, her transition chief when she was elected governor and a major donor to local and national Republican campaigns.

Here comes the judge … shhh

February 3, 2011

Retired Circuit Judge Eden Elizabeth Hifo has made the first extensive public defense I’ve seen of the secrecy surrounding Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s judicial appointments, which I covered in my Star-Advertiser column last week.

In appointing Sabrina McKenna to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, Abercrombie refused to disclose the names of the other candidates sent to him by the Judicial Selection Commission, from whose list he is required to choose.

The governor essentially said that the lawyers’ right to privacy is more important than the public’s right to know, breaking with the practice of Govs. Linda Lingle and Ben Cayetano of releasing the names — and in Lingle’s case, seeking public comment before making her appointment.

Abercrombie is going back to the dark days of Gov. John Waihee, when the secretive and unethical dealings of the Judicial Selection Commission figured prominently in the Bishop Estate scandal of the late 1990s.

The heart of Hifo’s argument is that lawyers who apply to be judges need privacy so their clients and partners don’t get huhu at them. She blames the sunshine for a decline in judicial applicants.

We want to encourage competent, experienced attorneys to offer themselves to the bench without risking damage to their careers if they should not be chosen. …

In recent years I know of four highly qualified attorneys, two women and two men, from three different and well-respected law firms, who were nominated for judgeships but not appointed. None of them works for those firms today.

In each case at least one of their partners retaliated against them for their willingness to leave the firm to join the judiciary. … In each case, clients learned from the public disclosure that the attorney was willing to leave private practice, and some clients expressed concern about finding a new attorney or law firm.

So basically, she’s arguing for the right of lawyers to deceive their clients and partners in order to advance their own interests.

I don’t know about you, but if I had a big date in court coming up that my life might depend on, I would certainly feel entitled to know if my lawyer planned to bail on me.

Locking the public out of the judicial selection process isn’t the answer here; the answer is for the state bar to enact rules to prevent firms from unreasonably retaliating against lawyers who offer themselves for public service — much like employers must make reasonable accommodation for those who participate in the military reserves.

I respect Hifo’s work as a judge and former journalist, but I’m sorry, the right of attorneys to mislead their clients and partners doesn’t trump the public’s right to fairly evaluate the performance of the governor and Judicial Selection Commission in handing out robes to jurists who will lord over us for 10 or 20 years.

Before local lawyers feel too sorry for themselves about the modest amount of public scrutiny we’re asking for, they should remember that in many other states, lawyers who want to be judges must put their names on public ballots.

Kamehameha Schools is getting it right

February 2, 2011

New figures released this week show how much progress Kamehameha Schools has made in its mission to educate Hawaiian children since the scandal of the late 1990s.

One of the most troubling problems back then was that the former trustees who were ultimately removed financed their dubious investments by cutting spending on education.

Outreach programs were virtually eliminated and educational efforts focused on the flagship Kamehameha campus at Kapalama, which could serve only a small fraction of Hawaiian children.

Since then, the diverse group of trustees appointed by the probate court and the school administration led by Dee Jay Mailer have built new Kamehameha campuses on Maui and the Big Island, spending $129 million on the three campuses last year, according to the trust’s annual report.

Even more impressive was the spending on outreach programs that touch tens of thousands of Hawaiian children throughout the state. Outreach spending totalled $102 million last year, up from $57 million in 2006.

Kamehameha Schools has sponsored public charter schools in Hawaiian communities, undertaken cooperative programs with the public schools and other private schools, invested in teacher training, funded preschool and kindergarten scholarships and helped pay for Hawaiian children to go to college.

Even with the increased spending on education, the school’s endowment experienced a healthy growth from $7.2 billion to $7.8 billion.

There’s a world of differences between Kamehameha Schools and Hawai‘i’s  public schools in both resources and mission, but still, there’s much the state can learn from the Kamehameha rebirth as it moves to an appointed Board of Education in hopes of reinvigorating the public schools.

The first thing is to avoid political horse-trading in appointing BOE members and focus on finding people with proven accomplishments in fields relevant to running a large organization like the Department of Education.

The second is to develop an ethic of always serving the needs of the children first — ahead of the interests of adult stakeholders who feed off the public schools.

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