‘This is not democracy’: Lawmakers slammed for skirting public input with telescope moratorium

HILO — As Hawaii waits to see if the Thirty Meter Telescope has a future here, a last-minute bill crafted in the state Legislature has many worried that lawmakers could end up forcing the next-generation observatory out of the state.

The legislation would prohibit construction on Maunakea until the University of Hawaii receives a new master lease for the Maunakea Science Reserve, completes administrative rules, and conducts financial and performance audits. Critics say that would set TMT back by years, even if the state Supreme Court, which is overseeing two cases on the $1.4 billion project, rules in its favor.


The bill caught people off guard because it was introduced without notice through an often criticized process known as “gut and replace,” where the contents of one bill are replaced by another. While audit requirements were part of a bill that already failed this session, the proposed building moratorium had not been seen before.

TMT supporters worry that would be the final nail in the coffin for a project already looking to go elsewhere after years of delays due to protests and legal challenges. But they are also troubled by the process.

Unlike a separate “gut and replace” bill affecting management of Maunakea, this move was done without any public notice, preventing residents from weighing in.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee swapped and then adopted the language Wednesday, but the new version of House Bill 1585 — originally pertaining to funding staff positions at UH for capital improvement projects — wasn’t made public until Friday evening. A Senate vote is expected today.

“The public was never and will never be given a chance to comment on Part 2 of this bill,” Thayne Currie, a Maunakea astronomer, said in an email. “This is not democracy.”

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, an Oahu Democrat, is chairman of the committee; Hawaii Island Sens. Kai Kahele and Lorraine Inouye also sit on the committee and voted for the amendment.

The audit requirements were part of a bill Kahele introduced that died earlier this session. He said his language was inserted along with the moratorium by Dela Cruz.

“What this bill says is basically you need to get those things done that should have been done years ago,” said Kahele, D-Hilo, while defending the measure.

He dismissed concerns about a building moratorium undermining the judicial process or killing the TMT project, and pointed the finger back at UH.

“One should beg the question: We have 14 years left of a master lease, and we’re about to build a $1.4 billion project,” Kahele said.

UH’s lease for the science reserve ends in 2033.

The phone became disconnected when a reporter asked why no public notice was given. Kahele called back to say he was walking into a meeting but didn’t answer the question or call again by deadline.

UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl responded to Kahele’s criticisms by saying they lack context.

The university is drafting an EIS for its master lease renewal request, a process that was put on hold following protests against TMT on the mountain. He said an EIS is being done voluntarily.

Meisenzahl said UH is consulting with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs about proposed administrative rules — which could address issues such as commercial tours and vehicular access — and expects public hearings in August or September. Those were put on hold during the first TMT contested case hearing to avoid ex parte communication with the state Board of Land and Natural Resources. Gov. David Ige asked them to remain paused while a second contested case was held, he said.

The bill also requires UH to complete the remaining five action items in the Maunakea Comprehensive Management Plan before construction can proceed. Those address issues such as depositing of cremated remains and placement of offerings on the mountain, which some Hawaiians consider sacred.

Meisenzahl said those action items have been addressed by the Kahu Ku Mauna advisory committee but blamed the “current climate” surrounding Maunakea as the reason they haven’t been completed. UH anticipates the Office of Maunakea Management board taking up that issue this spring.

“We’re moving forward right now,” Meisenzahl said. “We don’t feel like there’s a need to put this project at risk. There’s no reason these things can’t continue to happen simultaneously.”

But should UH have secured a new master lease before seeking a permit for TMT?

“Maybe that’s a legitimate question today, but it’s too late to ask,” he said.

“… Hindsight is definitely something to learn from. But, right now, what do we do to move forward?”

Maunakea was selected as the proposed location for TMT in 2009.

Dela Cruz didn’t respond to phone call requesting comment by deadline.

Inouye, a Democrat representing North Hawaii, Waikoloa, Hamakua and parts of Hilo, said Monday she voted for the bill in committee because of the audit requirements, but didn’t know it was done through gut and replace.

Dela Cruz, Kahele and Inouye are also sponsors of Senate Bill 3090, which sought to create a new management authority for the mountain. After it died in the House, lawmakers in the Senate inserted the bill into another measure — HB 1985 — through a similar process. With that bill, notice of the change was given in advance. Kahele has championed the bill around the state and said he will represent the Senate if it is taken up in conference committee.

Inouye said she is against HB 1985 because she doesn’t like the gut-and-replace tactic.

If the Senate passes the moratorium bill today, it will be sent to the House, which can vote the bill up or down.

If voted down, it then goes to a conference committee to see if an agreement can be reached. Those meetings are handled by appointees from the House and Senate, with discussions often occurring behind closed doors. Any agreement reached in conference requires approval by both chambers.

Doug Simons, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope director, said the bill will kill TMT if adopted, since the project has little room, if any, for more delays. But even if it doesn’t make it out of the Legislature, or gets vetoed by Ige, the bill is still sending the wrong message, he said.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Simons said. “I just don’t know what they are trying to accomplish.”

The legislation comes as TMT International Observatory, a California-based nonprofit that is trying to build the telescope, faces a self-imposed deadline this month for deciding whether to commit to Hawaii or move to Spain’s Canary Islands.

Simons said he expects the international partnership to put a decision on hold as they wait for the Supreme Court to once again decide on its land use permit, in addition to a sublease with the University of Hawaii.

In December 2015, the high court overturned the permit after finding the state Land Board violated project opponents’ due process rights by voting in favor before holding the first contested case hearing. That forced the project through a second contested case hearing that lasted for 44 days in Hilo.

The Land Board again approved the permit last year following the conclusion of the hearing. Contested case petitioners, who object to the project because they see Maunakea as sacred or overdeveloped, appealed. Separately, the state appealed a lower court ruling requiring a contested case for the sublease.

Simons said the Senate seems to be adding to due process concerns by inserting a building moratorium into the bill without public input.

“We all have to support whatever the court decides,” he said. “If it decides against TMT, we pick up the pieces and move forward one way or another. I did not anticipate a legislative gimmick basically short circuiting all of that.”

Bill Walter, Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce president, said the actions taken with HB 1585 shows why people don’t trust government. He also used the bill as an example as to why he thinks Hawaii doesn’t have a good reputation as a place to do business.


“Here is an organization that did everything the state told them to do,” he said, referring to the TIO, “even to the point of a second contested case. And, out of the blue, the Legislature says at this late hour, ‘Let’s kill it anyway.’ Really?”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

  1. Pest Outwest April 10, 2018 4:02 am

    So, under Hawaii legislation rules, you could write a bill prohibiting arsenic from being used as a seasoning in school lunches, and then keep the title, but change the “guts” to force a re-zone for a crony’s land deal, and no one would ever have a say on it. If that’s “Democracy”, maybe fascism isn’t such a bad idea.

  2. Scooby April 10, 2018 6:24 am

    What is the word these politicians like to use…oh transparency? Only for others.

  3. Ken Conklin April 10, 2018 6:26 am

    “What this bill says is basically you need to get those things done that should have been done years ago,” said Kahele, D-Hilo, while defending the measure.

    Well, Kahele, apply that to your own proposal. Even if you somehow didn’t think about administrative rules, and financial and performance audits several years ago, you could have thought about them 3 months ago at the start of this legislative session, instead of waiting until just a few days ago to throw this stink bomb into the process. Waiting so late in session, and then using gut-and-replace to avoid public discussion, is very obviously an attempt to sabotage the TMT project. You got your Senate seat because of sympathy regarding the death of your father. Your dishonorable behavior in this situation shows you deserve not sympathy but contempt.

  4. Big ideas April 10, 2018 6:51 am

    Typical DEM gamesmanship….if you thought Hawaiian Government was clean – guess again!

    The result of a one party system….no counter balance to poor governance.

    1. fishman2 April 10, 2018 2:38 pm

      I would like to see a 4 party system.

      1. Big ideas April 10, 2018 4:51 pm

        Which four?

        1. fishman2 April 10, 2018 5:03 pm

          The standard elephant and donkey group, but maybe two others so there has to be some sort of coalition to take other opinions into account. Labor? Environmental? Health? Constitutional?

          1. gmatch April 10, 2018 8:15 pm

            Swiss system works – permanent referendum and yes the people can vote on all issues and also remove politicians. Also term limits 1 term 4 years would help.

    2. diverdave April 10, 2018 11:54 pm

      The one party Legal Mafia in action.

  5. diverdave April 10, 2018 9:21 am

    Kahele is an obvious racial supremacist sovereignty fringer who is using his position to nix the TMT.

  6. Joe Joe April 10, 2018 1:06 pm

    TMT self proclaimed themselves as great but can’t seem to dot there i ‘s and cross there t’s. 😂
    TMT lies !
    Hey people we are all still driving around vehicles that basically haven’t changed in a hundred years . What will TMT fix ? Any discoveries these days will be weaponized and militarized FACT !

    1. Andrew Cooper April 10, 2018 1:37 pm

      TMT did everything by the rules, following the process as closely as possible in both letter and spirit. It is the State of Hawaii, notably DLNR that has not been able to figure out their own processes. This is the basic truth of the state supreme court decisions… Read them, including the most recent with respect to Pahakuloa.

      All of the science done by the Mauna Kea telescopes is public and transparent, all posted in public web archives you can browse through… Fact.

      1. kuching April 10, 2018 7:01 pm

        Sorry Andrew, I have to disagree with you. The Conservation District Use Application (CDUA) states that TMT Observatory Corporation is the 3rd Party Beneficiary (if the CDUA should be approved). However, without any supporting or other documents, when the first TMT Sublease was executed, that has now been revoked by legal challenge and which is currently being appealed by the so-called “state,” it was the TMT International Observatory LLC that was the 3rd Party Beneficiary, which BLNR (Board of Land and Natural Resources) consented to. Without supporting documents, How did such a major happening like this switch take place? Ironically, the same CDUA, with TMT Observatory Corporation named as the 3rd Party Beneficiary was the primary document of the Contested Case Hearing that was completed this past September that failed to include the name of any other 3rd Party Beneficiary. There were no amendments, assignments, or other changes in the designation of the “current” 3rd Party Beneficiary. Would you like to wager that it will be the TMT International Observatory LLC that will again come away named as 3rd Party Beneficiary of a then-expected, new Sublease? TMT, and the university AND BLNR, DID NOT follow the rules and, on this second chance, will probably follow their established pattern – and not follow the rules again. And this will be so unless the Hawai’i Supreme Court, in one of the present appeals, puts a STOP to these shenanigans!

      2. Joe Joe April 11, 2018 12:10 pm

        More lies don’t fix there lies !
        All you TMT’s get your heads out of the clouds ! Weapons and control is all these people want. Science could have ended poverty by now! But let’s all go to Mars ! You people are a joke with your CGI images 😂
        JETSONS yeah right try Hunger Games !

  7. F Kelly Finn April 11, 2018 12:29 pm

    To preclude Hawaii from getting the internationally acclaimed scientific powerhouse the TMT would be is to me very shortsighted and sad. Of all the projects being done in this state, why would we oppose groundbreaking science and the awesome opportunities it could provide to Hawaii’s keiki?

  8. JSpicoli April 14, 2018 4:00 pm

    We have a Republic.

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