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Water board should curtail use of lobbyists

LAST UPDATED: 2:22 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

It's time the Honolulu Board of Water Supply curbed its practice of hiring lobbyists to look out for its interests at the Legislature as well as the City Council, if leaders of the semiautonomous agency hope for a clear path to boost water rates on Oahu.

State and city ethics reports show the board has spent more than $469,000 on lobbyists since 2006, Star-Advertiser writer Derrick DePledge reported Sunday.

The water board's spending practices legitimately come under scrutiny now because its officials are seeking a 70 percent water rate increase, spread out over five years.

This would be its first increase since 2006 and a compelling case has been made for the importance of financing an accelerated program of upgrades to the water pumping and distribution system.

However, it doesn't excuse the water board from getting its fiscal house in order in other ways, finding savings in its overall operation, before expecting the ratepayer to pony up more money.

The board has said previously that it has had a lobbyist since at least 2005. In recent years it has contracted with SPJ Consulting LLC, which has monitored legislation such as the Council's adoption last year of the Koolauloa Watershed Management Plan. At the state Capitol, the list of pertinent bills included a 2009 measure allowing the board to issue revenue bonds.

Chuck Totto, the executive director of the Honolulu Ethics Commission, has said in past interviews that this doesn't pose any generic problems because management may determine this is the most effective way to deal with lawmaking issues.

"The bottom line would be (it's OK) as long as there's a legitimate public purpose to how they're spending government funds," Totto told The Honolulu Advertiser two years ago. "This is an issue that raises questions frequently, especially in tough budget times as to why not use your own people as opposed to hiring out."

Why not, indeed?

The agency owes its ratepayers at least some justification for the use of outside lobbyists, based on the necessity of protecting the ratepayer's interest. And the water board is not alone in this. The Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., for example, also have used lobbyists.

Some critics have argued that lobbying is never an appropriate expense for a governmental agency to pass on to the public. So it's encouraging that Dean Nakano, the board's acting manager, told the Star-Advertiser he would recommend against hiring lobbyists next year.

Of course, there are exceptional cases in which a professional consultant could give an issue undivided attention. In the case of the water board, for instance, proposed laws that would produce needless regulation could add continuing operational costs, which means long-term expenses for the ratepayers.

Certainly, however, such critical legislation doesn't come up every year. The default position should be that government agencies use staff for advocacy and legislation-tracking, rather than keeping outside lobbyists on permanent retainer.

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