Wednesday, November 25, 2015         

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Abercrombie asks appointees to quit

Members of boards and commissions receive letters soliciting their resignation

By Derrick Depledge and Kristen Consillio


Gov. Neil Abercrombie, seeking to reshape the state's policy and regulatory structure in his vision, has asked for the resignations of appointed members of the state Public Utilities Commission, Land Use Commission, Public Housing Authority and Board of Land and Natural Resources in addition to the Stadium Authority.

In letters sent to appointees this week, Abercrombie explained that he wants to transform these boards and commissions to align with his "A New Day in Hawaii" blueprint. He told the appointees — who were chosen by former Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, and confirmed by the state Senate — that their resignations would give his administration maximum flexibility in shaping public policy.

"My request is in no way a reflection of your service, but rather, as with my recent appointments to the Board of Education, a fresh start in a new direction," Abercrombie wrote in one letter, which was provided to the Star-Advertiser by an appointee who requested anonymity.

Donalyn Dela Cruz, a spokeswoman for Abercrombie, confirmed Thursday that the governor asked for courtesy resignations from members of the Stadium Authority.

Dela Cruz said Friday that resignations had also been requested from appointees to the other boards and commissions, which have policy and regulatory authority over issues that are priorities for the governor.

"This new direction is the governor's vision for meeting challenges in his ‘New Day' plan," she said in an email.

It is common, even expected, for new governors to replace executive branch employees who are exempt from civil service and serve at the pleasure of the chief executive. But governors are not able to replace appointees to boards and commissions — unless they are removed for cause — until their terms expire.

Previous governors have made personal requests to appointees to resign, especially when the appointees' terms were close to expiring, but several political observers described Abercrombie's written letters asking for dozens of courtesy resignations as unusual.

Lingle, the first Republican governor in 40 years, did not seek courtesy resignations from appointees to boards and commissions after she took office in 2002. "We didn't do that," recalled Barry Fukunaga, who served as Lingle's chief of staff during her second term. "These guys had been selected, appointed and confirmed, so we didn't go through the process of asking for courtesy resignations," he said.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, a Democrat, said he also did not ask for wholesale courtesy resignations. He said there is the potential to lose experience by replacing so many appointees at one time. "I don't think it's wise to ask for wholesale resignations," he said.

Abercrombie has expressed frustration that he does not have more discretion over appointments. In May, for example, at a community meeting on the North Shore on the future of Turtle Bay Resort, the governor questioned the logic of his not being able to choose members of the Land Use Commission until existing terms expire.

Abercrombie persuaded state lawmakers to give him the authority to select members of the Board of Education without nominees first being screened by an advisory council, as lawmakers had preferred when the idea was debated under Lingle.

In April, Abercrombie's office described the appointment process for the University of Hawaii Board of Regents — in which an advisory council screens nominees before submitting names to the governor for consideration — as broken after the Senate Education Committee rejected two of his nominees.

In his "New Day" plan, issued during his campaign last year, Abercrombie said his leadership would start with the appointments he makes. He said all decisions would be based on merit, and he noted that he retained the entire staff of his Republican predecessor when he became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's Air and Land Forces Subcommittee while he served in Congress.

While Abercrombie told appointees to the boards and commissions that he was not casting any aspersions on their service, asking Lingle's appointees to resign en masse, in some cases with years left on their terms, suggests the governor does not believe they are capable of fulfilling his vision.

Most of the appointees are unpaid volunteers, although members of the PUC are paid about $90,000 a year.

Travis Thompson, chairman of the state Public Housing Authority, said he worries about maintaining continuity if many appointees choose to resign.

"I think it's difficult at best for — I don't care who they are — to come in and change the direction of the agency," said Thompson, who added that he was shocked to receive Abercrombie's letter and has not decided how to respond. "And that's making an assumption that the direction we were currently going in was somehow not the correct one.

"Obviously, I don't agree with that."

Others said there might be reluctance among potential nominees to boards and commissions to accept appointments in the future if they think the process is purely political.

"Certainly an executive is free to ask," said Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai). "I certainly can understand first of all any new chief executive wanting to suggest their nominees. I certainly understand Gov. Abercrombie's ‘New Day' initiative, but because the Legislature, and specifically the Senate, is involved and we spend a great deal of time in the hearing and confirmation process, I think that it's something both the board members and Legislature should give thought to."

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