East Hawaii News

Council Fails To Override Three Kenoi Vetoes

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County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong today failed to muster enough votes to override mayoral vetoes of three bills, including two that were geothermal-related.

The votes came after 99 people presented nearly eight hours of testimony, nearly all of it on the geothermal bills.

The three bills, all of which had been introduced by Yagong, were vetoed by Mayor Billy Kenoi after their passage on June 19.

Yagong, one of Kenoi’s half-dozen opponents for mayor in the upcoming election, needed at least six votes to override the vetoes, but all he could get each time was five.

This was the second time the bills had come up for the veto override. In their previous appearance on July 19, the council voted 5-3 to postpone the effort.

Bill 257, which called for development of emergency response and evacuation plans for the lower Puna area where Puna Geothermal Venture is located, was the first to come up for reconsideration. The bill approved in June on a 7-2 vote was vetoed by Kenoi because he said such plans were already in place.


Following the marathon testimony, council members spent nearly two hours more grilling Ben Fuata, administrator of the county’s Civil Defense Agency, about the status of those plans.

Fuata told the council that while there is no formal emergency plan for the area, the county does have “protocols” that provide for various responses depending on the severity of the situation.

That wasn’t enough for some council members, including Ka`u Councilwoman Brittany Smart.

“I don’t think a plan is in place,” she said, after quizzing Fuata about plans listed on the county’s website.

Yagong said he introduced the bill after Fuata previously stated that he planned to formulate an evacuation plan and conduct an evacuation drill only to later change his mind. Fuata today told Yagong that he decided against it because Kenoi preferred to focus on the threats from hurricanes and tsunami.


Fuata, a former colonel in the Hawai`i Army National Guard named by Kenoi to the civil defense post five months ago, said he believed the protocols called Emergency Support Functions are better because they are adaptable to different situations.

“I personally don’t think a plan is needed,” he said.

Critics of the bill noted that it contained an Aug. 1 deadline for the plan to be submitted to the council, although it also allows for a 90-day extension if requested by the Civil Defense Agency’s “deputy director.”

However, questioning by Kona Councilman Angel Pilago determined that while Fuata is the agency’s administrator, Kenoi himself is technically its deputy director.

When the vote was taken, the motion to override failed. Hilo Councilman J Yoshimoto and Puna Councilman Fred Blas, who had been in favor of the measure on its second reading on June 19, were the deciding votes.


Joining them in opposition were Hilo council members Dennis “Fresh” Onishi and Donald Ikeda.

The bloc of four voted consistently against overriding all three of Kenoi’s vetoes.

Bill 256, which was approved in June on a 6-3 margin, would have renamed the Geothermal Relocation and Community Benefits Fund to the Geothermal Relocation and Public Safety Program.

It would also have changed the fund’s mission to restrict it to geothermal-related uses including health studies and additional air-quality monitoring around the PGV plant in Pohoiki. It also would have stopped such uses as funding the council’s Pahoa office and providing security at several county facilities in Puna.

Yagong opened discussion on the override motion by quoting testimony from a half-dozen testifiers who were in favor of the veto but also of more health studies in lower Puna.

“By passing 256 it allows us to do all the things that the people wanted us to do,” he said.

The health of neighbors of the PGV plant has frequently come up during testimony before the council, with many attributing their ailments to the plant’s emissions.

Hamakua Councilman Pete Hoffman said he couldn’t understand why Kenoi would be opposed to additional health studies.

“I am completely baffled why the mayor doesn’t see the benefit of working with us,” he said.

Councilwoman Brenda Ford, who represents parts of Kona and Ka`u, was one of several members to make impassioned pleas for the health studies. However, she also said she had doubts that the fund, which contains roughly $3 million, was big enough to do them properly.

In his veto message, Kenoi said the monitoring and studies can already be done using another source of royalties paid by PGV called the Geothermal Asset Fund, which Kenoi said cannot be used for the community benefits.

Losing the benefits was a sticking point for several council members.

That prompted Yagong to pledge that if the override passed and the bill became law, he would introduce another measure to put community benefits back into the measure.

The maneuver failed, along with the override attempt. This time it was Onishi switching his vote to defeat the motion.

Also going down on a 5-4 vote was Bill 262, which would require the county, under certain conditions, to make additional payments into a fund for future benefits of county retirees.

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