Home rule was back before the Hawaii County Council Wednesday morning at the West Hawaii Civic Center.
More than a dozen people, mostly in Hilo and Pahoa, testified in support of Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille’s resolution asking the state Legislature to pass a bill to provide the counties greater authority over agricultural matters, particularly relating to the cultivation and development of genetically engineered crops and plants and associated pesticides. The council approved Resolution 272, with Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan casting the lone no vote, although, as Wille noted, it’s too late in the legislative session for the measure to be considered this year.
“Wherever you stand on the GMO (genetically modified organisms) issue, the home rule issue is still here,” Wille said. “In some ways, state legislators get really disconnected” from constituents on the neighbor islands.
She said some legislative actions in the past have had the appearance of legislators “slapping” counties back into place, and she was concerned that if the Legislature passes measures in reaction to county measures, such as Kauai and Hawaii counties’ recent GMO bills, it would “put an ocean” between residents and the nearest level of government allowed to address those issues.
Council Chairman J Yoshimoto said he supported the resolution.
“We want home rule,” he said. “We always want to control our own destiny as much as we can.”
The mention of genetically engineered crops opened up the testimony for a few pointed remarks about the council’s previous discussions on the topic. When activist and regular testifier Jim Albertini attempted to single out Yoshimoto, Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi and some state legislators for their position on GMOs, Council Vice Chairwoman Karen Eoff cut him off with a warning. When Albertini mentioned Onishi again, Eoff ended his testimony, reminding testifiers they were to address her as chairwoman and not other council members.
The issue arose again a few minutes later, when a testifier mentioned specific council members. At that point, Eoff called for a recess to consult with Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida. Following the conversation, Eoff let the testifier continue, with an admonition that other council members may be mentioned, but testifiers should remember to be “courteous and professional.”
Albertini filed a complaint about the incident with the County Clerk, telling West Hawaii Today he felt his free speech and civil rights had been violated by Eoff cutting off his testimony.
The council later authorized paying $13,860 to cover legal fees Environmental Management Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd incurred defending herself in a lawsuit questioning her qualifications for the job. South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford filed the lawsuit, after voting against Leithead Todd’s confirmation last year. Third Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra dismissed the case for procedural errors, but Ford’s attorney later refiled it. Ford recused herself from Wednesday’s discussion and vote.
Puna Councilman Zendo Kern chastised fellow council members for even considering not paying the legal fees, noting the council confirmed Leithead Todd’s appointment to the position.
“The only reason (the lawsuit) is happening is because (Leithead Todd) is in that position,” he said. “We confirmed it.”
The vote to pay the fees was unanimous.