Maunakea protest camp spurs ethics complaint: Ethics Board debates jurisdiction, postpones action until September

  • Structures erected near Maunakea Access Road as seen June 1, 2020. (Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Structures erected across from Maunakea Access Road as seen June 1, 2020. (Special to West Hawaii Today)

The Board of Ethics considered a citizen petition Wednesday asking why Hawaii County isn’t enforcing laws on Maunakea ranging from last year’s blockade of the mountain’s access road to the construction of unpermitted structures near the protest site.

“The protest camp is illegal,” said Lisa Malakaua, who filed the petition along with Mike Nathaniel. “Why is it that the county can enforce the law everywhere else but not in this situation?”

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The ethics board has mulled its own courses of action over the controversy and on Wednesday, its first meeting since February, it agreed to hold the citizen petition in abeyance while it decided whether to hire an outside attorney to define the parameters of the board’s jurisdiction and authority.

Nathaniel, a military veteran, said he served to protect the rule of law and he still holds fast to that philosophy.

“We have laws in place for a purpose — to protect our general safety and protect citizens against the abuse of power,” he said. “If our state and county officials find it difficult to be impartial when exercising their duties, then they have no right being there.”

Also on hold is the creation of a resolution to conduct an investigatory hearing as to “why the rule of law is not being enforced.”

The board, meeting in council chambers in Hilo with some members participating via WebEx, held an hour-long closed-door session while it was briefed by Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela on its legal rights and responsibilities. Kamelamela said after the meeting he couldn’t comment on what he advised as it’s confidential under attorney-client privilege.

Ethics Board Chairman Rick Robinson said the board is taking the information under advisement until its Sept. 9 meeting.

The road was blocked from July 16 to Dec. 26, 2019, by protesters, who call themselves “kia‘i,” or “protectors,” opposed to construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea. The groups agreed to stand down, at least temporarily, while negotiations continue.

The larger camp on approximately 50 acres along Saddle Road, also known as Daniel K. Inouye Highway,, was dismantled but some structures remain.

Protest leader Noe Noe Wong-Wilson on Wednesday decried what she saw as a lack of public notice about the petition being heard by the Ethics Board. At its February meeting, dozens of people testified on both sides of the Maunakea rule-of-law issue, but Wong-Wilson and Michael Last were the only testifiers Wednesday.

“I don’t believe your commission has provided ample public notice to give the public an opportunity to testify. … I believe that was clearly unethical,” Wong-Wilson said. “It baffles me why we the public have to be on constant alert to testify on these things.”

Board agendas are posted on the county’s online calendar in addition to on a bulletin board outside the county building in Hilo.

Last testified about how he was arrested and cited by the state for holding signs near the Kailua-Kona pier 20 years ago.

“Why wasn’t the same level of effectiveness enforced on the Maunakea protesters,” he asked.

While Maunakea is under state jurisdiction and enforced by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Gov. David Ige had delegated much of the responsibility to Mayor Harry Kim. In addition, siting structures in a conservation district and whether building permits are required fall under county jurisdiction.

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Wong-Wilson maintains the issue is under the jurisdiction of DLNR and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, not the county.

Ethics Board Chairman Rick Robinson’s name has been corrected in this article after publication. Additional editing was done to remove references to Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu, which is not the name of an organization.

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