Archive for August 2011

Gone fishin’

August 21, 2011

I’m taking a little time off to spend what’s left of the summer paying attention to things other than the news. See you after Labor Day.

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New twists in teachers contract dispute

August 18, 2011

The state Ethics Commission is likely to take more flak from high places for its advisory ruling that led Sesnita Moepono, one of three members of the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, to withdraw from the prohibited practices case involving the Hawaii State Teachers Association contract.

The ethics determination was pretty much a no-brainer; Moepono’s husband is a student services coordinator in the DOE and a member of HSTA, giving her a direct financial interest in the outcome of the union’s attempt to overturn a state-imposed contract that hits members with 5-percent pay cuts and increased medical premiums.

Moepono has been open about the conflict and her integrity is not in question, but the ethics law is clear: “No employee shall take any official action directly affecting … a business or other undertaking in which he has a substantial financial interest.”

With Moepono recused, the remaining board members, Chairman Jim Nicholson and Rock Ley, will decide the case.

The three members are appointed with one representing management, one representing labor and the other representing the public. Ironically, Moepono was appointed by Abercrombie as the management representative, while Ley is the labor representative and Nicholson the public representative.

Hearings on the prohibited practices case were supposed to start this week, but got sidetracked by HSTA’s complaint that Abercrombie and the DOE engaged in improper ex parte communication with the board.

Nicholson and Ley rejected that complaint today and rescheduled the start of hearings on the main complaint for Aug. 25.

Governor must answer, ‘Where’s the beef?’

August 17, 2011

In his speech today updating constituents on the status of his “New Day” program, Gov. Neil Abercrombie once again did an excellent job of describing the major challenges that Hawai‘i faces.

But he still hasn’t gotten to the hardest part — prescribing specific remedies that a critical mass of Hawai‘i residents will support despite the sacrifices they will certainly entail.

The governor basically declared that he has state finances in the black and the wheels of government aligned more to his liking and is now ready to focus on a “gathering storm” that threatens Hawai‘i’s  future.

He identified the five elements of the threat as the massive debt we face with some $22 billion in unfunded pension and medical benefits owed public workers, soaring healthcare costs, our over-reliance on outside energy and food, inadequate support for education and social services, and the potential for huge federal funding cuts.

His solution, as always, was his “New Day” plan to create jobs around a sustainable economy, invest in our children and make state government more efficient.

Abercrombie encouraged everybody to join in the sacrifices and took aim at Hawai‘i’s status quo that he was long seen as part of.

“The status quo insists that we conform to the way things have always been,” he said. “It is obsessed with illusory short-term gain at the expense of long-term stability. It favors the few. It outflanks the middle class, and it marginalizes those who need help the most. It questions and casts doubt upon new ideas. It stifles creativity and limits opportunity.”

It’s hard to argue with his logic, but the devil will be in the details — of which he offered few.

Abercrombie’s biggest problem is that he’s burned much of the political goodwill he had after landslide victories over Mufi Hannemann and James “Duke” Aiona.

Part of it was unavoidable, such as his necessarily tough stand in union negotiations that angered some of the noisiest labor and “progressive” elements of the Democratic Party.

Demanding that his political base make the same sacrifices as everybody else should have won him points with moderates and progressives who have always been suspicious of him.

But Abercrombie unnecessarily antagonized them with missteps such as his pointless tizzy fit on the Pro Bowl, his decision to shroud judicial appointments in secrecy for no good reason and a perceived arrogance exemplified by his infamous “I’m not your pal” remark.

He needs to smooth over some of the self-inflicted ill feelings and regain political capital so that next year he can face a Legislature that disregarded many of his ideas this year from a position of greater strength.

If he’s seen as weak and lacking public confidence, it’ll be everyone for themselves and he’ll get little cooperation on the shared sacrifices he seeks.

HSTA flounders in labor battle

August 17, 2011

The Hawaii State Teachers Association is making self-defeating moves in its legal fight to overturn a state-imposed contract that hits teachers with a 5-percent pay cut and a greater share of medical premiums.

The HSTA’s complaint to the state Ethics Commission that Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the Department of Education engaged in illegal ex parte communication with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board backfired when the labor board delayed hearings on the union’s prohibited practice complaint to instead hear evidence on the suggestions of bias.

That’s not what HSTA wanted at all; it was looking to take a political shot at Abercrombie and the DOE and instead winds up on the defensive explaining itself to an unamused labor board.

The ethics complaint, over a letter the employers sent to the labor board suggesting directed mediation to resolve the dispute, has even some labor lawyers scratching their heads.

The administration also sent a copy of the letter to the HSTA, making it difficult to sell an argument that the employers were operating behind the union’s back.

The other questionable move was issuing subpoenas to have top legislative leaders testify before the HLRB on the budget they passed in April that assumed a 5-percent pay cut for the teachers.

The union argues that this locked in the pay cut before negotiations concluded, denying the teachers their right to collective bargaining.

It’s another legal stretch. The Legislature often must pass a budget before all labor negotiations are done and makes its best guess on labor costs. If negotiations turn out differently, the budget is adjusted.

HSTA leaders are acting like they think they have already lost the legal battle and are instead fighting a clumsy PR war.

Partying and writing don’t mix

August 16, 2011

I attended a family birthday celebration at Dave & Buster’s last night and got through it by consuming several Black and Tans, so instead of  trying to write, I’m going to leave you a video shot Saturday of Ilisa Peralta’s guitar students performing Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.” My granddaughters Sloane, 8, and Nakaylee, 7, are seated front and center in their first public performance, and they rock.

An issue of congressional residency

August 15, 2011

I got a note from a supporter of U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa asking why her fellow Rep. Mazie Hirono hasn’t gotten as much scrutiny as Hanabusa over whether she moved into the district she represents.

The main reason is that, unlike Hanabusa, Hirono never promised she’d move if elected.

Last year’s election put Hawai‘i in a bizarre situation in which neither of our congresswomen could vote for themselves. Federal law requires only that representatives live in the state, not the district.

Hirono lived in East Honolulu in the 1st Congressional District when she was elected in 2006 to represent rural Oahu and the neighbor islands in the 2nd Congressional District. She never moved into the district she represents and is now running for the U.S. Senate.

Hanabusa lived in Ko Olina in the 2nd Congressional District when she was elected last year to represent urban Honolulu in the 1st Congressional District. Under heavy pressure on the residency issue from her opponent, Charles Djou, she pledged to move into the district if elected and kept the promise by renting a Kakaako apartment.

Hanabusa still hasn’t sold her Ko Olina home and it could be moved into the 1st District for the next election if the state Reapportionment Commission has its way, but a Hanabusa spokesman said she plans to sell the Ko Olina property and buy closer to town either way.

The residency issue came up in the 2006 Democratic primary in the 2nd District, but Hirono’s opponents, who included Hanabusa, never put enough pressure on her to elicit a clear promise to move. Here’s how I reported her position in a column before that year’s primary:

Hirono, the former lieutenant governor who lives in Honolulu, says she would like to move to the 2nd District, but stopped short of saying she actually will do so if her campaign succeeds.

At candidate forums, Hirono has expressed concerns about uprooting her 82-year-old mother, who lives with her, from her familiar surroundings.

“I’d love to live in the 2nd District, especially on one of the Neighbor Islands,” Hirono said. “My biggest challenge will be making a decision about where to live, because I enjoy each island for many different reasons.

“Of course, the reality is that if elected I would be living the bulk of the time in Washington, D.C., as that is where the job is.”

Hirono argued that “what matters more than where the member of Congress lives is that the representative is attentive to the people of the district, responsive to their needs.”

She was keeping to the same line in a recent statement to AP: ”As many know, my 86-year-old mother lives with my husband and me. Uprooting her from familiar surroundings to a new home would be too disruptive for our family.”

Hirono can be fairly criticized for choosing not to live among the constituents she represents, but it wouldn’t be fair to accuse her of breaking a campaign promise.

Les Kondo strikes again

August 11, 2011

Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo will likely have an even bigger target on his back with state legislators after he shot down a posh dinner well-heeled special interests planned for Hawai‘i lawmakers attending the National Conference of State Legislators in San Antonio.

According to the Hawaii Reporter, the event was cancelled after Kondo advised hosts that the value of the meal exceeded the $25 limit set by the ethics law on what legislators can accept.

Sponsors of the dinner included the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, Outrigger Enterprises, Hawaii Medical Services Association, Island Insurance, Coca Cola and the law firm of Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel.

Lawmakers will no doubt be furious, as they were earlier in the year when a similar determination by Kondo kept them away from a dinner sponsored by a prominent Democratic power broker.

They tried during this year’s session to counter the Ethics Commission’s tough stand by passing a bill that would have allowed legislators and other state employees to freely accept and even solicit meals, travel and other gifts worth up to $200 from special interests seeking to influence them.

Kondo deserves credit for standing firm in enforcing laws protecting the public against the buying and selling of official influence. Wealthy private interests shouldn’t be able to use expensive freebies to gather and indoctrinate lawmakers in a way ordinary citizens can’t.

Some legislators are clearly gunning for Kondo — they barely allowed him to speak at one House Judiciary Committee hearing — but hopefully ethics commissioners will resist the pressure and back him up like the Campaign Spending Commission did with Bob Watada a decade ago.

If they do, Kondo and the commission have the potential to give a backbone to loosely applied ethics rules in the same way Watada did with campaign fundraising.


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