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Absence of Protesters Prompts Council Accusations

July 19, 2012, 6:13 PM HST (Updated July 19, 2012, 11:15 PM)
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What if they called for a protest and nobody came?

That seemed to be the case this morning when the County Council met in Kona to vote to override mayoral vetoes of two geothermal-related bills.

The council eventually voted to postpone the override until Aug. 1, but not before a flurry of accusations of impropriety were made.

Members of the Pele Defense Fund and other anti-geothermal activists had vowed to rally support for efforts by council Chairman Dominic Yagong to override the vetoes issued by Mayor Billy Kenoi.

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Kenoi had rejected Bill 256, which would have made changes to the Geothermal Relocation and Community Benefits Fund, which contains money paid annually by Puna Geothermal Venture.

The fund is used to purchase homes from those who built or bought in Pohoiki before PGV began operations, to allow their owners to relocate. It is also used for “community benefits,” such as funding the council’s Pahoa office and providing security at a Pohoiki beach Park and at the Pahoa Community Center.

The measure, which was introduced by Yagong following public hearings heavily attended by those speaking out against further geothermal development, would restrict the fund to strictly geothermal-related uses including air-quality monitoring and health studies. It would also stop the county’s practice of re-selling the acquired homes.

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Kenoi’s veto message said the monitoring and studies can already be carried out using another source of royalties paid by PGV, the Geothermal Asset Fund.

Kenoi said the asset fund can’t be used, however, to pay for the security and other benefits, which he said lower Puna residents support. And retaining or demolishing the purchased homes – currently, the new homeowners are no longer eligible for relocation – would be an unnecessary expense, he said.

Kenoi also vetoed Yagong’s Bill 257, which would require the county Civil Defense Agency to establish emergency response plans for geothermal facilities. Kenoi said such plans already exist.

Geothermal protesters had promised to come out in force for today’s meeting, with one of the movement’s leaders suggesting there could be 100 or more picketing at the county building in Hilo – where members and the public can participate in council proceedings through videofeeds – in support of Yagong’s veto override.

But in Hilo this morning, not a single protester was evident, and nobody offered any testimony in Kona.

Several people spoke via videofeed from Pahoa in favor of the vetoes.

There were more than a dozen supporters of Kenoi’s vetoes testifying in both Hilo and at the council’s Pahoa office. And many wondered out loud about the lack of geothermal protesters.

An hour into the testimony, Yagong announced that he intended to seek a postponement of the veto overrides.

The council in June had approved Bill 256 by a 5-4 margin.

A postponement of the veto override takes only five votes from the nine-member council, while overriding a veto requires six.

Yagong’s announcement incensed some of the veto supporters, who noted that they had taken the day off from work to testify.

“I was wondering why the anti’s weren’t here, and now I know why,” said Wallace Ishibashi, who also questioned the motivation for Yagong, who is running for mayor against Kenoi, in introducing the bills.

“Twelve years in office, brother, why just now coming up with geo legislation?” Ishibashi said.

The lack of geothermal protesters – at least dozens of whom have come out at all other council meetings about the geothermal bills – prompted Ishibashi and Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi to question whether Yagong might have violated the Sunshine Law, which prevents discussions of legislative intent outside of a scheduled meeting.

“I was really shocked to see nobody was here,” Onishi said.

In a heated exchange, Yagong challenged other council members to come forward if he had discussed the matter with them. None did.

He noted that while it would be a violation of the Sunshine Law to discuss voting with his colleagues before the meeting, communication with the public was another matter. Yagong said that earlier this week he had discussed a postponement with certain members of the media.

“Please don’t blame them for being organized,” he said, apparently referring to the geothermal protesters.

Yagong maintained that he was seeking a postponement because Fred Blas, the council member from Puna, was unable to be present at today’s meeting.

However, Blas was one of the “no” votes on Bill 256, although he did vote in favor of Bill 257.

Yagong then said that the geothermal protesters learned of the postponement at a forum on Sunday.

That prompted Onishi to produce what he said was a mass emailing sent out on Monday encouraging geothermal protesters to come out for today’s meeting.

The final vote on postponing the override vote for both bills was 5-3, with Onishi and fellow Hilo council members Donald Ikeda and J Yoshimoto voting against the move.

The council also voted 5-3 to postpone a veto override attempt on a third bill, a proposal by Yagong to make conditional additional payments into a fund for future benefits of county retirees.

 

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