County Council Squashes Herbicide Resolution

February 4, 2020, 4:27 PM HST (Updated February 4, 2020, 4:27 PM)
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EPA photo.

A short-lived resolution to reduce Hawai‘i County’s use of herbicides on government-managed lands met its end Tuesday in committee.

Resolution 475-20 was introduced by Hawai‘i County Councilmembers Ashley Kierkiewicz and Sue Lee Loy after the failure of Bill 101, which would have banned all Hawai‘i County use of herbicides by 2024.

The resolution had resolved to create a vegetation management advisory commission through the Office of Mayor Harry Kim. The point of the commission was to reduce the county’s herbicide use to “the minimum amount necessary.” However, it did not legally mandate any specific level of herbicide reduction nor offer specific solutions as to how reductions might be achieved, leaving that up to the yet-unformed committee to determine.

The resolution was met with some criticism, as both its purpose and necessity were questioned by lawmakers who had supported Bill 101.

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Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter called the resolution “toothless.”

“It’s the force of law that’s holding people’s feet to the fire,” Poindexter said. “A resolution doesn’t hold your feet to the fire.”

She also echoed testimony offered by community members when she characterized the measure as “smoke and mirrors type of legislation.”

Several Big Islanders testified Tuesday, most in opposition to the resolution on the grounds that it didn’t tackle the county’s herbicide use strongly enough. Various testifiers referred to the resolution as “watered down,” “gaslighting,” and “insulting.”

Kierkiewicz offered a different point of view, saying that to describe resolutions as toothless promotes a false narrative.

She and Lee Loy each voted against an all-out herbicide ban when the Council had an opportunity in January to override Mayor Kim’s veto of Bill 101, which had initially passed its final reading.

Lee Loy and Kierkiewicz on Tuesday hammered home the notion that resolution 475-20 provided an opportunity to gather more information and create more “sound policy,” addressing one of their primary criticisms of the herbicide ban during the legislative process.

“It helps set the tone for tackling this issue in a sensible, measured and calm way,” said Kierkiewicz, adding that reason and civility hadn’t always characterized community reaction in the aftermath of Bill 101’s ultimate failure.

“It’s been difficult to be on the receiving end of personal attacks and threats,” she said. “Comments that dehumanize, comments that vilify are not helpful to the discussion. This topic has been unnecessarily polarizing and divisive. We need to get back to listening to each other like we used to.”

Lee Loy also said she’s dealt with some “ugly” reaction from Big Islanders following her opposition of the herbicide ban, but added she wasn’t overly attached to the resolution and was willing to postpone it in the name of finding the best possible solution.

Councilwoman Karen Eoff said she preferred to wait for the redrafting of new legislation that would tackle the issue with more ferocity. Her Council counterpart, Maile David, cited a political tradition of letting the author of a failed measure take another crack at a bill before landing on a resolution proposed by another councilmember(s).

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, the author of Bill 101, said while she could appreciate the intention of the resolution, there were simply too many problems with the language. It outlined goals, not mandates, and highlighted the progress that would “ideally” happen instead of setting policy in stone.

“Hundreds of people have reached out to me,” Villegas said, “asking me not to give up.”

Eventually, Kierkiewicz made a motion to postpone the consideration of the resolution. The Council Committee on Agriculture, Water, Energy and Environmental Management voted 4-3, with two members absent, not to postpone a decision.

Votes were cast largely along the same lines as the final vote to override Kim’s veto of the herbicide ban. Kierkiewicz, Lee Loy and Councilman Aaron Chung voted to postpone consideration of the resolution. Villegas, Poindexter, David and Councilman Matt Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder voted not to postpone consideration.

Eoff, who participated via teleconference from Kona, indicated her intention to vote against postponement. However, a technical issue rendered her unable to cast her vote and she was counted as absent. Committee Chair Dr. Tim Richards was absent, as he had to leave the chambers early for a meeting with the Public Utilities Commission on another matter.

After the 4-3 vote, Kierkiewicz withdrew the resolution from consideration, which closed the matter.

Tracking county herbicide use

One development from the resolution and subsequent discussion with which all councilmembers appeared to be pleased was progress made by the Departments of Public Works and Parks and Recreation toward creating a herbicide use database.

Maurice Messina, former deputy director of Parks and now an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, offered a presentation to the Council explaining a system that would require those spraying herbicides to keep track of when, where and how much they were spraying. The system would also track factors like wind speed and whether workers wore protective gear.

The Department of Public Works was also on hand to explain a digital system for the eventual entry and tracking of spraying data done by both Parks and DPW employees, which would include a geographic information system mapping device. One goal would be to eventually make the information accessible to the public, Messina said.

DPW has actually had a system of data entry for spraying roadways since 2016-17 and is equipped with iPads that would allow for data entry in realtime. Parks currently does not have the budget to go digital, Messina explained.

“Regardless of whether there is a resolution or not … we are committed to reducing the use of herbicides,” Messina said.

Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder was skeptical of the self-reporting nature of the proposed herbicide tracking system.

“I’d be very interested to see how it works when you’re trying to push buttons on an iPad while trying to do your job,” he said.

He added that he recognized the idea’s value in principle but noted it would have been more helpful six weeks ago during discussion on Bill 101.

“It’s a great step but a little bit late,” Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder said.

Messina countered by saying county workers have been ordered to comply with directives and thus will do so, adding that feedback from county workers would allow for tweaks to the system that would make it more workable going forward.

He added that county workers recently completed a refresher course on best practices and that spraying from trucks is no longer protocol. Instead, sprayers will walk behind trucks and spray on foot.

The county plans to continue developing its tracking system despite the resolution’s failure Tuesday.

New legislation regarding Hawai‘i County’s herbicide use is likely to come before the Council for consideration in the future.

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