William Aila Jr. was confirmed unanimously yesterday by the state Senate as director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, a vote of confidence in the former Waianae harbormaster’s ability to manage a sprawling department that has struggled to protect the state’s unique environment.
The 23-0 vote, with two senators excused, came after the Hawaiian activist and fisherman answered questions during the past few weeks about whether he could be objective when dealing with issues that come before the department. He also had to address whether he should have voluntarily disclosed to senators that he had held a commercial fishing license and an aquarium fish catch permit and that he was late in filing a financial disclosure report.
While the questions never seriously jeopardized his nomination, the concerns did lead to one-week delay in his confirmation vote.
State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz (D, Kaena-Wahiawa-Pupukea), chairman of the Senate Water, Land and Housing Committee, said Aila had come from humble beginnings but possessed the necessary skills and background "to protect Hawaii’s most valued natural and cultural resources."
State Sen. Clayton Hee (D, Kahuku-Kaneohe), who had asked for the delay in the vote, said senators have a responsibility to fully screen the governor’s nominees.
Hee, who is of native Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry, said Aila, as a native Hawaiian, has to meet a higher standard when it comes to protecting the state’s natural resources.
In a lengthy and often personal floor speech, Hee spoke in favor of the nomination but said Aila’s lack of disclosure reflects on his character; wondered why Aila, as interim director, did not do more to protect Hawaiian burials before signing off on the Honolulu rail project; and asked why Aila voted for the Thirty-Meter Telescope project atop what Hawaiians view as sacred Mauna Kea.
Hee, a horseman, worried that confirming Aila was like choosing a prized roping horse for competition and then finding out it was crippled after releasing the steer. "I said to a lawmaker today, ‘I’m not sure if the nominee is a stallion or a proud-cut gelding,’" he said. "What I’ve seen up to this point is the second, not the first."
State Sen. Malama Solomon (D, Hilo-Honokaa), who is native Hawaiian, said she agreed with several of Hee’s concerns but said she found his comments comparing Aila to horses "offensive" and "inappropriate."
"I’m still trying to figure out what kind of horse I am," a laughing Aila told reporters afterward.
But the director acknowledged that he has to balance his responsibilities with his personal views. He said he understands that some native Hawaiians and others might disagree with his decisions.
"There is a difference, though, between what I feel personally and what I have to do as a member who is sitting in that office," he said. "So I would just ask people to try to see the difference."