It's Past Time to Pry the Wespac Wheel from Simonds' Hands

posted in: Fisheries, Marine, May 2014 | 0
Every penny spent by the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council comes from federal coffers. Yet tracking how those funds are spent would seem to demand the combined skills of an accountant, a sleuth, and, most of all, a psychic. And even then, there’s no assurance of success.
For years, members of the public have tried mightily, and vainly, to figure out how Kitty Simonds, Wespac’s executive director, is able to contort the council’s budget in such a way as to find money for her favorite causes, including initiatives to organize Native Hawaiians, petitions to de-list federally protected species (the green sea turtle and the Pacific humpback whale), and travel, by herself and selected council members, to exotic destinations on the flimsiest of excuses.

Nor have council members been able to pry open the lid on Simonds’ secrets. The last one to make a serious effort was Laura Thielen, when Thielen headed up the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and, by virtue of that position, got a seat at the council table. The clash of two strong women in meetings was a sight to behold – but ultimately Thielen, whose years on the council were measured in the single digits, was no match for Simonds, now in her fourth decade at the council’s helm.

Members of Congress have fared no better. To cite only the most recent example, an inquiry made by Reps. Henry Waxman and Gregorio Sablan sought to determine, among other things, how council funds are spent, the degree of oversight exercised by the NMFS and its parent, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the role the council played in the petition to de-list the green sea turtle. NOAA’s response, months late, was largely an anodyne recitation of Wespac promises – broken even as the letter was mailed – to mend its ways.

NMFS and NOAA could and should give far greater scrutiny to Wespac’s operations. No regional director of NMFS has yet had the courage or the stamina to launch any sustained investigation into Simonds’ management of not only the council’s budget but also its compliance with federal laws designed to make the operations of government agencies more transparent and their behavior more accountable. While they may begin their stint in the position with the best of intentions, one after another director has failed to stand up to the formidable force that is Kitty.

Over the Line
But will the Teflon-coated Simonds be able to escape consequences for the outrageous actions associated with a meeting in January of a subcommittee of the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee?

As we report in this issue, the first serious offense was the failure to publish a notice of the meeting in the Federal Register. Such public notice is required for all meetings of the council and its affiliated advisory panels, including the SSC. While the council staff usually posts meeting notices on its website, the January SSC subcommittee meeting still does not appear on the list of past meetings.

The second outrage was the destruction of an audio recording made of the un-noticed meeting. According to NMFS’ response to a Freedom-of-Information-Act request made by Environment Hawai`i, the recording was destroyed on February 22, two days before the FOIA request was filed.

Sam Rauch, the head of NMFS, stated that NMFS was “reviewing the circumstances of this action.” Michael Tosatto, administrator of NMFS’ regional office in Honolulu, told Environment Hawai`i that his office was “looking into the circumstances of that recording/erasure.”

Enough!

The very fact that Wespac staff admit that a government record was destroyed should be reason enough to bring in the Justice Department. Federal law clearly outlaws the “removal, mutilation, obliteration, or destruction of records.” Furthermore, if the destruction is carried out by a custodian of public records – and for Wespac, that would almost certainly be Simonds – the penalty can be a fine of not more than $2,000, imprisonment of up to three years, or both. In addition, the custodian “shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States.”

For too long, the council and its executive director have behaved as though federal funds were their private purse, their meetings were exclusive clubs, and the reports and data on which they base their decisions to allocate public resources were privileged, top-secret communications.

What will it take to get some sunshine into this process? We’re not sure if the removal of Simonds will alone be enough, but we’re certain that unless and until she goes, the outrages and insults that are the hallmark of Wespac operations will not abate.

* * *
The Old Boys’ Network Is Alive and Well

In the early 1990s, neither the Land Use Commission, nor the Board of Land and Natural Resources, nor the state Commission on Water Resource Management – arguably the most important panels in state government when it comes to natural resource management – had ever had a female board member.

That changed in the middle part of the decade, with the appointment of Sharon Himeno to the Land Board. Soon, other women were nominated and won Senate confirmation to sit on the LUC and CWRM, although, to be sure, never enough to approach a majority of a given board’s membership.

But Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s nominations of board members for confirmation this legislative session turn the clock back to the bad old days. The Land Board has been without a distaff member since 2009. With terms of three members expiring and a fourth seat (Kaua`i) vacant, the governor had ample opportunity to name at least one female to the panel this year. Instead, as of press time, he has appointed just two men: Stan Roehrig, to replace Rob Pacheco as the Big Island member; and Thomas Oi, to fill the Kaua`i seat. Roehrig is well connected politically, as a former state representative, former member of the University of Hawai`i Board of Regents, onetime member of the Land Use Commission, and, most recently, the lead attorney defending the Senate district of Malama Solomon, threatened in a recent redistricting dispute. Oi worked for years as a surveyor for various state departments, and before retiring he was the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ land agent for the island of Kaua`i. He is now employed by Rep. Dee Morikawa, who represents West Kaua`i.

Similarly with the Land Use Commission. Of its nine members, just one, Carol Torigoe, is a woman. Abercrombie had an opportunity to begin to redress the imbalance with three vacancies on this board. Instead, he nominated Edmund Aczon, the community relations director for the Hawai`i Regional Council of Carpenters who used to work for Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, to fill the O`ahu seat on the commission. Aaron Mahi, best known as the former conductor of the Royal Hawaiian Band, was appointed to fill the at-large seat.

At the Water Commission, the sole female is Linda Rosen, who occupies an ex officio seat by virtue of her position as administrator of the state Department of Health. The term of William Balfour is expiring at the end of June. Chosen to replace him is Michael Buck, who retired from his position as head of the DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife in 2004. Of all the nominees, Buck was the only one who drew negative testimony: John Culliney, author of Islands in a Far Sea, had the bad grace to mention several low points in DOFAW history that occurred on Buck’s watch. These included Buck agreeing to let hunters tear down a newly erected fence at Pu`u o `Umi Natural Area Reserve and his opposition to a plan to turn the badly abused Pu`uwa`awa`a Ranch over to a non-profit group that had funds in hand to manage it.

In short, of the 20 appointed positions on these three critical panels, only one seat is filled by a woman – a circumstance that, in 2014, is simply unacceptable.

When asked to explain the appointments, Justin Fujioka, Abercrombie’s press secretary, stated that the governor’s “Boards and Commission’s Department reviews all applications to match the best qualified candidates to each vacant seat or expiring term, regardless of gender.”

In other words, at least in the case of the BLNR, LUC, and CWRM, no woman is good enough.

We have a word for that. Unfortunately, it’s not printable.

 

Volume 24, Number 11 — May 2014

 

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