The stars were just disappearing and the sky was turning its pre-dawn white when the dogs and I went out walking this morning. The grass was wet, two waterfalls streamed down the face of Makaleha and there was an uncharacteristic — for June — nip to the air.
As the sun rose, slowly, the puffballs off to the south glowed pink and the fringe of gray hovering over Waialeale became a patch of fire as the mountain herself blushed lavender. Makaleha took on a golden-green glow, and it was all so fresh, so exquisite, that I knew we were heading into a marvelous day.
It was a marked contrast to the sinking feeling I experienced when I walked through the door of the Kauai Veterans Center at 8:30 yesterday morning and saw, at one end of the sign-in table, a pile of hand-crafted fans that read “Hydros” on one side and “Yes!” on the other. It took me a moment to catch on, as I’m not accustomed to seeing the first word pluralized, and then I politely asked the attendant if she had, in the interest of fair play, any fans with “FERC” on one side and “No!” on the other.
“That’s all the signs we have,” she said testily, and I joined a sizable crowd knowing I was attending something more akin to a time share sales pitch than a meeting that I thought was intended to give co-op members an opportunity to express their concerns and questions to KIUC Board members and staff prepared to listen to other points of view.
Because it was quite clear, from both the comments made by KIUC officials and the literature handed out — a front-and-back promo sheet for Free Flow Power (FFP), the company that KIUC has hired to walk it through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) process to potentially develop hydroelectric projects, and a half-sheet outlining “5 ways to make hydro happen on Kauai,” all of which focused on getting people to vote yes in the upcoming vote on the FFP contract — that KIUC is dead-set, come hell or high water, on following this particular course.
And the majority of those in attendance appeared to be equally dead-set in their opposition to it.
Which explains why one key player told me he hadn’t even bothered to offer testimony. “We’ll see them in court,” he said.
It was also clear that KIUC had, as Elaine Dunbar phrased it in her testimony, “successfully blurred the reason for this meeting. It’s not about hydro. It’s about secrecy and an improper process.”
Or as Adam Asquith, who initiated the petition drive that led to both the meeting and the upcoming vote, put it: “I really scratch my head. How did we get to this place of signs that say ‘hydro yes’ — the alternative being ‘hydro no?’ That was never our position. It’s ‘hydro yes, FERC no!’”
Indeed, the only mention of FERC anywhere in the KIUC handouts was a reference to J. Mark Robinson, one of FFP’s senior managers, as the former director of FERC’s Office of Energy Projects, which may explain a thing or two.
KIUC President and CEO David Bissell did bring it up, but only to say, “FERC’s not the issue in front of us. It’s to retain our consultants and our ability to continue with hydro.”
Yes, but those particular consultants were hired precisely because they had already filed FERC applications and supposedly have the expertise to guide KIUC through that particular process.
Bissell continued: “FERC’s just an option for us today. We can talk about it in the months and year or two ahead.”
But for people to believe that means they must, as Bissell exhorted, “have trust in KIUC. Have trust in your elected board. Have trust in me. And most important, have trust in yourself, because the only way these projects will go through is with overwhelming community support.”
Problem is, as Glenn Mickens pointed out, “There’s only one reason we’re here. It’s a matter of trust. From the get-go, people have this underlying mistrust of KIUC.”
Which is probably why some of the speakers talked about their belief that FFP had blackmailed KIUC into signing a contract with the threat that it would otherwise pursue hydro development without the utility — a charge that Bissell vehemently denied. Others said they felt like the utility was blackmailing co-op members when KIUC attorney David Proudfoot asserted that ending the FFP contract “would probably be the end, at least for the foreseeable future, of hydro development.”
That language is repeated in the “voter guide” that the utility will be sending out to co-op members with their ballot.
The fact that KIUC drafted the guide with no input from petitioners was another sore spot. Jonathan Jay noted that there was no discussion on the ballot measure about why the vote was taking place, and both he and Pat Gegen said it seemed unreasonable that KIUC had written the pro and con arguments.
“We tried to be very fair and balanced,” Bissell said.
Oh, really? Here’s a copy of the guide. What do you think?
Proudfoot, clearly irritated, was less conciliatory in his response.
“The Board voted for it [the contract]. They are entitled to support it. They are not required to help others who don’t support it with the member’s money. That’s why it’s clearly labeled KIUC voters guide.”
Ummm, yes, maybe that’s true from a strictly legal perspective, but from a community outreach, public relations standpoint, allowing Asquith to pen the petitioners’ argument would have done a lot to ease the mistrust and animosity of the opposition while minimizing the David vs Goliath scenario that’s emerging here.
But the utility’s insensitivity to such things is one of the underlying issues, prompting former Sen. Gary Hooser to observe: “I think the Board really blew it on how they rolled it out.”
While much of what I heard was nothing new, bits and piece of fresh information surfaced. Like the initial phase of the FFP contract is for “several million dollars," according to Proudfoot.
Oh, and that, according to Bissell, “It is very high on our priorities to talk to Native Hawaiians.”
Well, that’s good. Only it might have been smart to meet with them first, as opposed to the Rotary Clubs and Kauai Economic Development Board, since anyone with a brain knows that hydro projects on the Wailua River are going to meet intense cultural opposition.
And when Gay & Robinson rep Charles Okamoto asked, point blank, if KIUC planned to exercise the power of eminent domain to force G&R to accept a hydro project on its land — derailing its own plans for such a development in the process — Bissell replied: “We’ll either work a deal with you guys for us to do it or you to do it.”
Sweet. Guess that same "co-opt the opposition" thinking also prompted them to offer a job to Canen Hookano, whose Pacific Light & Power was working to develop hydro on the Westside before FFP moved to edge them out. He declined.
I was also interested to learn that Board members Carol Bain, Ben Sullivan and Jan TenBruggencate, after initially voting against the FFP contract because KIUC lacked a community outreach plan, are now solid supporters. All three offered testimony urging others to join them, with Bain saying, “We finally got our community plan. There is going to be communication, not propaganda. We are going to listen.”
As I left — shortly after Asquith expressed his dismay about the three-minute limit on member testimony and Westside homesteader Joe Manini noted that “if they [Bissell and Proudfoot] were given three minutes and we were given at least 15, maybe we would get our point across” — I picked up one of the “Hydros Yes!” fans as a little memento of communication, KIUC style.