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Six months of special House investigative hearings — ostensibly over mismanagement of state agricultural lands — have failed to produce any legislation addressing problems identified in two state audits that were amplified during the hearings.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” said state Rep.
Amy Perruso (D, Wahiawa-Whitmore-Poamoho), a member of the special House Investigative Committee. “The House spent the (legislative) interim going through this lengthy process. It’s a sad moment.”
The investigative committee was launched on the final day of the 2021 legislative session to look into the findings of audits conducted by state Auditor Les Kondo and his office that pinpointed failures and missed opportunities by the Agribusiness Development Corp. and state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Special Land and Development Fund.
When the hearings began in mid-July they quickly
pivoted into an
investigation of Kondo himself, and his audits. The committee, led by House
Majority Leader Della Au Belatti
(D, Moiliili-Makiki-Tantalus), repeatedly failed to meet its own self-imposed deadlines as the investigation expanded into subpoenas for witnesses, more than 30,000 pages of documents and a Circuit Court battle that Kondo won over confidential work papers.
As the hearings dragged on, one of the eight committee members — Rep. Dale Kobayashi (D, Manoa-Punahou-Moiliili) — openly criticized what he called a disproportionate focus on Kondo, whose work Kobayashi said had been peer reviewed and highly rated.
On the eve of the current legislative session, the committee released its 292-page final report that found no criminal wrongdoing by Kondo but called for oversight of Kondo’s office by the Legislature through bills that have since died.
The report also recommended nearly 50 changes to the development corporation and 17 for DLNR.
But none of the land management recommendations survived in legislation that Kobayashi helped introduce.
The only related legislation that’s still alive, the latest
version of Senate Bill 2473, would transfer ADC from the state Department of Agriculture and attach it administratively to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
“Was it (the special House Investigative Committee) a complete waste of time?” asked Kobayashi, chairman of the House Legislative Management Committee. “Hopefully not. Time will tell.”
During the hearings, Kobayashi repeatedly said he wanted to participate in the Investigative Committee to improve land management practices by ADC and the SLDF.
The idea, Kobayashi said, was: “Let’s fix some things that are wrong at ADC — and that’s gone. What’s left is this (SB 2473), which doesn’t address directly any of the issues that we brought out in the report. All it does is change reporting lines.
“It is disappointing,” Kobayashi said. “If you look at
all the work that went into it (committee hearings), was there any focus on the reporting lines? Not really. There is no tangible outcome. All of that time spent, all of those documents that were subpoenaed, the cost of man hours, the cost of crushed morale
(at the Auditor’s Office) and wasted time. All of these costs are wasted.”
But “intangibly” Kobayashi hopes that officials at ADC and DLNR — and the boards that oversee them — heard the criticisms of their land management practices that were aired over six months of hearings and detailed in the committee’s report.
“I’ve got to believe there’s some positive that came out of it,” Kobayashi said. “I’ve got to figure it helped. Lines of communication are now opened up.”
Perruso also sees hope amid her disappointment that no meaningful legislation remains alive.
“I see it (SB 2473) as a
deflection of responsibility rather than digging deep
and working on the internal operations of that agency (ADC) — superficial reattachment of the agency as a way to solve the problems,” Perruso said. “It does not address the core issues.”
Small farmers, in particular, want a better relationship with the state Department of Agriculture, not DBEDT, Perruso said.
But there were some positive results from all of the hearings and scrutiny of state land management, she said.
“I learned a lot and I had an opportunity to ask questions in a public forum that I would not have had. I think that was extremely useful,” she said.
The hearings also helped mobilize different segments of the community united by their desire for sustainable agriculture, support for small farmers and more development of programs such as farm-to-school, Perruso said.
With all 25 Senate and 51 House seats up for election this year, Perruso also suspects that people concerned about Hawaii agriculture will run for the Legislature, adding more energy for agriculture reforms.
“At the moment it may not seem like there were positive outcomes,” Perruso said. “But this process has moved the public conversation. All sustained change comes from below. And we in this building (state Capitol) react to the public.”
No legislation after months of Hawaii land management hearings