Hawaii County Councilwoman Brenda Ford did not have a conflict of interest when she sponsored a bill banning genetically modified crops, the county Board of Ethics unanimously ruled Wednesday.
Ford, who represents South Kona and Ka‘u, has a small papaya plot growing 41 plants on the 5-acre farm in Ocean View she shares with her husband Larry. They said they make about $1,200 a year from the papayas, about 2.3 percent of Ford’s annual salary as a council member.
But Ford’s comments during recent hearings on both her bill proposing a ban on GMO crops, and Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille’s bill proposing limits on the crops, raised questions for Eric Weinert, general manager of Calavo Growers, which raises both GMO and non-GMO papayas. He filed a petition alleging Ford is trying to ban competing farms from growing papaya, thus raising the value of her own crop.
Wille’s bill is scheduled for final reading at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center after passing its first reading on a 6-2 vote. Ford’s bill received a negative recommendation from the council before being sent to the Environmental Management Commission.
Weinert has said he will challenge Wille’s bill in court if it is adopted.
“(Ford’s bill) puts us completely out of business,” Weinert said, characterizing Ford’s actions as, “‘Everybody that’s not doing it my way, I’m going to put them out of business.’ Clearly that’s a conflict of interest.”
Weinert said Ford, during hearings on the GMO bills, put herself out there as a “commercial, non-GMO, organic papaya farmer,” and therefore somewhat of an expert.
“She’s trying to put her competitors out of business,” he said. “She should recuse herself.”
Ford’s attorney, Michael Matsukawa, sees it differently. He cited case law that shows the U.S. Supreme Court in an unrelated matter gave elected officials great leeway in conflict of interest cases.
“It seems as if the petitioner is trying to cancel Ms. Ford’s vote,” Matsukawa said. “Would 41 trees have an impact on the marketplace? We don’t know.”
Ethics Board members agreed with Matsukawa’s interpretation. They said there is a high bar to determine whether a conflict of interest has occurred. The code states, “No officer or employee shall take any official action directly affecting a business or other undertaking in which that officer or employee has a substantial financial interest.”
Commissioner Glen Hisashima wanted to be sure that Ford had disclosed her farming activities to the council and the public. He said he’d be hard-pressed to see a conflict if the activity is “disclosed and part of her legislative duties.”
“I think when we have petitions that are talking about conflicts within the context of their legislative duties, it’s going to be a high bar for me personally to see a conflict when submitting legislation or sponsoring legislation,” Hisashima said.
The requirements for conflicts that “directly” affect a council member’s business and creates a “substantial” financial interest particularly troubled Commissioner Arne Henricks, a retired judge.
“I don’t think these go over either hurdle,” Henricks said.