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Civil-union letter splits firms

By Gene Park

LAST UPDATED: 2:57 a.m. HST, Jul 7, 2010

When it comes to an issue as divisive as civil unions, some Hawaii companies have decided it is best to mind their own business.

"Because it's such an emotional issue, I think it's best not to have your company involved," said Keith Vieira, senior vice president of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Hawaii and French Polynesia.

Vieira is a member of the Hawaii Business Roundtable. The Roundtable, which includes executives from the state's largest companies, sent a letter June 4 to Gov. Linda Lingle urging her to veto a civil unions bill. The bill, House Bill 444, would give couples in a civil union the same rights as married couples.

Five of the companies in the Roundtable, Starwood included, issued statements yesterday disassociating themselves from the veto letter.

"While we are active members of the Business Roundtable and believe it to be a beneficial organization for the people of Hawaii, we do not agree with every decision that the Roundtable makes," said Time Warner Cable Inc. in a statement through the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign. Nate Smith, president of Time Warner subsidiary Oceanic Cablevision Inc., sits on the Roundtable's executive committee.

"The letter to Gov. Lingle urging her not to support House Bill 444 is one such instance."

The other companies are: Aon Corp., Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc., Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. and Marriott International Inc. Only Aon Corp. gave explicit support of civil unions, but all stressed distancing themselves from any calls for a veto.

In a letter to civil union supporters yesterday, Vieira called on Roundtable Executive Director Gary K. Kai to "remove Starwood and myself personally from any communication that supports the veto of this bill."

Vieira wrote that "while there are concerns on the wording of the legislation, we will not support a veto of this bill."

The letter was addressed to Carolyn Martinez Golojuch, president of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays Oahu; Donald Bentz, treasurer of Equality Hawaii; and attorney Jo-Ann Adams. In response to the letter, Adams said the Roundtable "should be completely discounted."

"In their zeal to throw a monkey wrench into the governor's orderly decision-making process, the letter, their comments and the ensuing press coverage have tarnished the reputation of a group which includes some of the nation's finest and most enlightened companies," Adams said.

Officials at the Hawaii Business Roundtable, including Kai, have not returned calls for comment on the issue or the conflicting statements from some of its membership.

Kai's June 4 letter did not take a position on civil unions. It took issue with the language of the bill, including its effective date of Jan. 1, 2010, and the potential for more questions to arise as the legislation is implemented.

When Human Rights Campaign officials saw Kai's letter, they were puzzled because they knew a number of companies represented in the organization have pushed for equality in the workplace.

"We then reached out to them to help understand the situation better," said HRC spokesman Michael Cole in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. "What we heard was that a number of companies wanted nothing to do with this statement against the civil unions bill."

Several local business organizations -- Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, Latin Business Hawaii, Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii and Smart Business Hawaii -- said yesterday they have not taken a stance on civil unions and do not plan to.

"It's a very emotional issue, and we kind of like to let companies make their own decisions on that," said Hawaii Chamber President Jim Tollefson.

Tollefson said that although his group has not taken a stance, it has done research on the bill's possible impact. The state chamber spoke with chambers in other states that do allow civil unions. The verdict: "From what we can determine, and talking with the Hawaii Employers Council, we think there's going to be minimal impact on business."

Taking a stand on an issue like civil unions can be risky, said Marie Villa, president of Latin Business Hawaii, a Hispanic business group made up of 85 local companies.

"I think with taking a stand, you don't want to cut your nose to spite your face," said Villa, who also runs Hispanic Hawaii News. "It's like being bipartisan. It's smart not to sway one way or the other, because it's going to affect people whether it goes through or not, in many different ways."

The Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii also has not taken a stance, said Executive Vice President Wen Chung Lin.

When it comes to social issues, there will never be a consensus, particularly among businesses, said state Republican Sen. Sam Slom, also president of small-business group Smart Business Hawaii.

Slom voted against HB 444 and has been a vocal opponent of civil unions in his capacity as a public official. He said his preference is to remove the government from marriages, not just same-sex civil unions.

But the private sector has moved toward more progressive attitudes in the workplace, something Slom acknowledged yesterday.

In 2003, 200 of the Fortune 500 companies -- or 40 percent -- offered domestic partner benefits to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, according to the Human Rights Campaign. That number grew to 293, or 59 percent, by 2009.

"It's similar to how we saw over the past few years, every business has gone green now," Slom said. "They don't want to appear anti-environmental. Most of it is marketing and PR. The rest of it is just common sense."

The focus, Slom said, is on the bottom line, including being able to hire the best possible employees from the available talent pool regardless of who they are. It also means not alienating your customers.

"Part of acting smarter is that you don't act or react to everything that the Legislature does or doesn't do, but you do have to stay on message and stay focused," Slom said. "Instead, now you have guys trying to cover their rears, trying to speak out of both sides of their mouth."


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