A state Senate committee voted Monday to recommend against confirming Gov. David Ige’s nominee to represent Hawaii Island on the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.
The vote by the Committee on Water and Land was 4-1 to recommend the full Senate reject the appointment of Christopher Yuen. Yuen is a former county planning director who has served 14 years during two stints on the Land Board, most recently as an at-large member from 2014.
Voting against Yuen’s nomination was Sen. Kai Kahele of Hilo, the committee chairman, plus Sens. Gil Riviere and Clarence Nishihara, both Oahu Democrats, and Kurt Fevella, an Oahu Republican.
The lone vote in Yuen’s favor was cast by Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran of Maui, the committee’s vice chairman.
“The chair finds that extending the nominee beyond his 14-year-long tenure on the Board of Land and Natural Resources would inhibit efforts to promote the kind of open-mindedness, accountability and innovative thinking ideal in a public servant who assumes the profound kuleana that comes with this decision,” Kahele said. “… There was overwhelming testimony and evidence that the nominee has failed to employ his full authority as a BLNR member to protect the public’s interest in the state’s public trust resources.”
Yuen said he wasn’t surprised by the committee’s vote, which came on the heels of a largely adversarial July 1 hearing.
“It was evident … that several senators came into the hearing with their minds made up against me, and basically with a prosecutorial approach,” Yuen said.
Kahele alleged impropriety by Yuen in the recording of minutes of BLNR meetings on Nov. 9, 2017, and Dec. 14, 2018.
“Questions began to surface as to the accuracy and integrity, and the extent to which a board member’s own personal bias interfered with the objective recording of the board’s decisions,” Kahele said.
Yuen and BLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case denied any wrongdoing, with Case sending a letter to Kahele dated July 5 stating Yuen responded to a need to comply with Sunshine Law requirements by helping to clear a backlog of meeting minutes caused by staffing issues.
“There are no discrepancies,” Case wrote. “The minutes are accurate and correctly show the board’s decisions.”
She also contended Yuen didn’t prepare the Nov. 9, 2017, minutes, and made no changes to the section on East Maui Irrigation Co. revocable permits that were in question by Kahele.
Case said it “would be a serious distortion of the record to suggest or conclude” that Yuen’s “helping the BLNR to catch up with the minutes is anything less than a selfless act.”
“I probably put two weeks of work into it, purely as a volunteer. … And the accusation is that I did it to bias the result of the minutes,” Yuen said. “… The truth is, I did not write the portion of the minutes that Sen. Kahele … criticized at the hearing.”
Riviere praised Yuen’s previous service on the board, but added that in recent years Yuen displayed “kind of a continuous discounting of community concerns.” Riviere, who is also president of the group Keep the North Shore Country, used the Na Pua Makani wind farm in Kahuku, a project in Riviere’s district which he and the group oppose, as “a classic example.”
“This thing is a catastrophe and the community is beside itself, and really does not deserve 568-foot wind turbines towering over the elementary and high school,” Riviere said.
Yuen was part of the majority in two 5-1 votes by the board for the wind turbine project. One was in 2016 for the lease of state land to the developer, AES Corp. The other was in 2018 on a permit that would allow project operations an “incidental take” — a euphemism for accidental killing — of an estimated 26 ope‘ape‘a, the endangered Hawaiian hoary bat, in a 10-year period.
In a statement, Yuen cited the state’s policy to achieve 100% renewable energy in 2045. He also said operations of a neighboring wind farm resulted in only one known death of an endangered bat in six years.
“Everybody seems to be for it in principle,” Yuen wrote. “In practice, we will never achieve this goal if we wait for projects with no opposition.”
Yuen also noted in his statement that the project, which was the subject of public protests, had more support in the community when the board’s decision was made in 2015.
Fevella, whose wife Donnalee was arrested twice during protests, and who accused Honolulu police of using excessive force against protesters — a claim the department denies — said Yuen’s “resume, all his accolades and all the years of service doesn’t describe the man” — an apparent reference to his and Yuen’s differences on issues brought up by the committee.
As he had during the July 1 hearing, Fevella mentioned Yuen being the lone dissenter in a 6-1 BLNR vote in December 2018 that denied a construction right-of-entry permit for the developer of Ocean Pointe subdivision — which is in Ewa Beach, which Fevella represents — to One‘ula Beach Park for the purposes of lowering a berm for flood control.
Fevella was concerned the project itself — which was approved by BLNR in 2014 before Yuen re-assumed a seat on the board — would cause polluted storm runoff to render limu (seaweed) harvested there to be unfit for human consumption.
Fevella also took issue with Case’s assertion that there was no problem with a BLNR member doing minutes.
“I been on the Neighborhood Board over 20 years,” Fevella said. “And all the 20 years that I was on the Neighborhood Board, not one Neighborhood Board member ever did their own minutes, because there’s no transparency.”
In addition, Fevella said during the July 1 hearing that Yuen couldn’t legally serve on BLNR because of a state law that allows no more than three members of the same party. He said Case, Kauai member Thomas Oi and at-large member Samuel Gon are all “card-holding Democrats.”
An email dated July 1 from Erynn Fernandez, executive director of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, said she had received Yuen’s request to resign from the party on that date and had processed it.
Despite the committee’s vote of no confidence, Yuen’s nomination will proceed to the full Senate, which will have the final say.
“It’s not my style to predict anything in a situation like this,” Yuen said when asked to assess his chances. “I’m just hoping for the best.”