Thursday, December 18, 2008

Musings: Kill the Messenger

It’s fitting that the papers today — at least, the Maui and Honolulu ones — are all abuzz with news of the final state auditor’s report on Hawaii Superferry — just as the state Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of Act 2.

And interestingly enough, state auditor Marion Higa is especially critical of Act 2 — the law adopted in a special session to let the ferry run — for all the reasons that have been raised by its opponents. She notes in the summary:

We also found that the legislation on behalf of Hawai'i Superferry compromised
the State’s environmental laws and set a worrisome precedent for future
government accommodation that puts the interests of a single business
before the State’s environmental, fiduciary, and public safety responsibilities."

Higa provides the detailed rationale for her criticism of Act 2 on page 28 of the report (and hat tip to Dick Mayer for finding all the juicy bits):

….Act 2 undermines the State’s environmental policy and review process as it relates to large-capacity ferry services and ferry vessel companies and substitutes a negotiated environmental review process tailored to the Hawai'i Superferry Inc. It muffles the EIS law by insulating significant elements of the Hawai'i Superferry Inc. operation from any required environmental review under Chapter 343, HRS.

Higa also lays bare the shibai that the law wasn’t drafted solely to benefit HSF:

Because Hawai'i Superferry Inc. is the only ferry vessel company able to take advantage of the small window of time created by Act 2, it appears that the legislation was designed to benefit a single operator.

She then raps the Lege and goes right to the gist of this whole sordid mess:

While it is within the Legislature’s authority to amend laws in response to judicial decisions, it is questionable policy-making to suspend current environmental laws for a 15- to 16-month period to enable “large capacity ferry vessels” to operate under a temporary law. Once the window is closed, Chapter 343, HRS, will go back into effect for ferry operators. In the end, Act 2 enabled the Hawai'i Superferry Inc. to enter the market without having to meet the initial requirements of addressing its operational impacts on the environment set forth in Chapter 343, HRS, and reinforced by the state Supreme Court."

Higa also focuses in on the state harbor expenditures to accommodate the ferry in an assessment that reflects poorly on the Lingle Administration:

State officials ignored
 the recommendations of their technical staff, setting off a chain of events that
 culminated in the selection of inadequate harbor improvement systems.

Saddled with a deadline imposed by Hawai'i Superferry and supported by 
administration officials, DOT technical staff implemented the only harbor 
improvement system that could meet their time horizon, a combination of barges 
and ramps, which was not their preferred choice.

The state-funded $38.5 million
 harbor improvement system has proved to be problematic, best exemplified by
 Kahului Harbor’s barge, which is continually battered by high winds and waves. 
Not only have the barge and pier incurred more than $3 million in damages (the 
liability of which has yet to be determined), the barge also requires the services of
a tug boat to secure it to the pier during ferry operations. Like the barge and pier
damage, responsibility for this significant extra expense has yet to be determined.

But the State has a larger and more expensive challenge over the horizon. Last
 summer, Hawai'i Superferry officials announced that they will be outfitting their
 second ship with an onboard ramp, a feature that eliminates the need for the $10 
million barge-and-ramp system at Kawaihae Harbor and the $2.5 million ramp at 
Nawiliwili Harbor, both built to accommodate Hawai'i Superferry and no other 
users. If company officials choose to retrofit their first ship, the Alakai, with 
a loading ramp, the State’s entire $38.5 million barge-and-ramp system would 
quickly become unnecessary. Because the barges were designed specifically for 
Hawai'i Superferry use, they cannot be repurposed in their present configuration
by other harbor users. In addition, since they were built in China and are therefore 
prohibited from transporting cargo within U.S. waters, the barges may have little
 use for potential buyers. This situation would have been avoided if state officials
had required Hawai'i Superferry to carry an onboard ramp in the first place.

The Maui News reports that Higa was unaware of the Supreme Court hearing and did not time her release to coincide with it.

The Honolulu Advertiser also covered the story, reporting:

Brennon Morioka, the director of the state Department of Transportation, said in a written response to the audit that new ramps on Superferry would not render the state's barge-and-ramp system obsolete and described the finding as "an inaccurate conclusion." Superferry is repaying the state for the harbor improvements.

Morioka also claimed that Higa exceeded the scope of her audit and reminded her that the governor and the Legislature were seeking to "strike a balance between the public interest need for an alternative form of inter-island transportation and concerns for the environment."

So once again we have the Administration essentially claiming that all this circumventing and undermining was OK, because it was really in the public’s best interest, so Higa should just shut up and stop poking about in all the corners and closets.

The Star-Bulletin’s coverage focuses on the intense pressure exerted by HSF, with a subhead that reads: “A report depicts an aversion to making the company conform to legal requirements.” It goes on to state:

Hawaii Superferry made it clear: Build the ramps or the ferries are not coming to Hawaii, [state Harbors Division director Mike] Formby added. In 2004, state officials were told -- prior to the construction of the Alakai -- that a ferry with a built-in ramp would not work with the design of the boat.

Furthermore, when permanent harbor improvements, including building a new pier at Kahului Harbor, were suggested, they were shot down to meet deadlines imposed by Hawaii Superferry.

According to the report, the administration felt it could not "secure all the necessary environmental assessments for the permanent harbor improvements in time to meet Hawaii Superferry Inc.'s deadline."

Both Honolulu articles are followed by comments, but those on the S-B site are more interesting. I especially liked the one complaining that all of the auditor’s reports are “negative and damning” — and then blames that not on a repeated history of state screw ups, but the auditor’s own personal failings and “need to punish.”

Classic. Don’t finger the culprits, or hold them responsible. And please, don't tell us all this bad stuff we don't want to know. Instead, kill the messenger and keep us all in blissful ignorance.


Anonymous said...

The Maui News reports that Higa was unaware of the Supreme Court hearing and did not time her release to coincide with it.

That strains credulity.

Anonymous said...

What really strains credulity is how the SuperFerry business and their government enablers can believe their abuse of power isn't going to blow up in their faces.

Aren't any of them reading the national news these days? Or, like their arrogant kin on the mainland, do they believe they're a special case?

Anonymous said...

I'd have to agree with those who criticize the auditor for inserting personal political opinions in an official audit. Sure it pleases those who oppose the superferry, but it's completely irrelevant and unprofessional.

Anonymous said...

Excellent synopsis Joan. Thank you for a great blog.

Joan Conrow said...

You're welcome, and I just got this comment from Rep. Mina Morita:

"The auditor just confirmed everything that we suspected. It's good to get it from an independent source."

Anonymous said...

I'd say Marion Higa deserves any allowances considering the obstacles that have delayed her work.
She is a fine person to have at the core of this (de facto) state and a refreshing breath of honesty.
Thank you, Marion Higa for all that you do and have done.

Something to look forward to: Harju's departure. If ever there was a pretender of a journalist, he was it. God help the Cambodians as he is being sent there to do some non-newsing or, who knows, maybe that's the only place he can find work - somewhere English is a second language, or perhaps nobody speaks it at all in the region.
Never thought I'd see the day. Good riddance.

Anonymous said...

higa rocks, lingle/bush should go down with the ship and harju is a scrub. already celebrating the new year! a hui ho ho ho:)

Jennifer Tyler said...

Even though I may agree often, it never ceases to amaze me how easy it is for people to sling judgments at people on blogs and then sign posts as "anonymous"... I asked Joan to change her blog settings to limit commenting to people who actually stand behind their words enough to list their name with their statement. Otherwise, its rather chicken-shit attacking isn't it? I invite you to step out of the shadows "Anonymous said" gang...

awolgov said...

Hey John.
I agree but you see there's a little clique on this island in case you haven't noticed. And as you've probably noticed not too long ago, I got attacked by many of these wonderful 'Kauaians' so I've been posting anon.
I'm not afraid to post name, they are. But it's interesting because you get different responses from them if they don't know your name.
Regarding the chicken attacks (which I've had plenty and thank you for bringing this up) were you referring to the Harju post?

My recent anon: December 18, 2008 6:08 PM

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen any numbers recently, but the last ones I saw indicated that the SF is no where near the break even point. How is the company staying in business?

Anonymous said...

That depends on how you define what its "business" is.


Ed Coll said...

Marion Higa has consistently done her job and done it well. Really hypocritical to accuse the messenger bearing bad tidings for being negative. Smiling people making nice and wearing rose colored glass become so blind to reality by their Pollyanna views that any objective critical analysis of poor performance is perceived as counter productive. I have yet to hear a state official say Marion Higa is right we gotta fix this. It is always "we were already aware of the problem, and they have been addresses" followed up by "and we are doing much better now"!

Anonymous said...

"chicken-shit attacking isn't it"

disagree. and why would i want protesters at my house?

anyways, nunya, some of the stuff you have posted in the past..."wow" (ill leave it at that)

and the value of a given post here (in my view) is the quality of the commentary, the ideas, etc

Anonymous said...

Is nunya a real name? It seems pretty anonymous to me.

Anonymous said...

You're right Nunya. I see what you mean. And it looks like your views are different so you should be criticized.

Anonymous said...


ha....ya that is one way to look at it

Joan Conrow said...

OK, enuf on Nunya, whose comments I appreciate and value.

Anonymous said...

Marion Higa stopped being an "independent source" roughly 3 years ago. Now, I could write her stuff for her without the data. She has very obviously developed into a political being. The only part not known is the end to these means.
A parallel case is local council critic Horace Stoessel. He used to write lengthy, ponderous letters about small procedural points. They were always neutral and academic. About a year or two ago he took sides. Now he is also partisan and predictable; like Higa.

Anonymous said...

"OK, enuf on Nunya, whose comments I appreciate and value."

understood, but the sadam/kurd/gas denial comment was epic

Anonymous said...

to December 19, 2008 10:41 PM

well put

Anonymous said...

partisan or not, horace like higa, is usually on the mark. hard to argue with the truth on such matters.

Anonymous said...

"the truth" and "partisan" are incompatible. Partisans can't find the truth with both hands even in the daylight.