The Hawaii County Council has voted to allow attorneys from national advocacy groups Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety to represent it for free as it defends a new law restricting the cultivation of genetically modified organisms.
The Council voted 6-3 late Wednesday in favor of accepting legal help as the county fights a lawsuit filed by the Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association and other agriculture and biotechnology groups, West Hawaii Today reported.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren invalidated the county’s partial GMO ban in November, saying state law pre-empts county law on the issue. He said lawmakers intended the state to have broad oversight of agricultural issues in Hawaii.
The county plans to appeal the case. By accepting the free legal help, the county would only be liable for court costs up to $10,000.
North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff acknowledged that not all Council members want to appeal. But she said the county should do the best it can with the expertise offered.
Puna Councilmen Greggor Ilagan and Danny Paleka joined Hilo Councilman Dennis "Fresh" Onishi in voting no. Paleka likened hiring the attorneys to retaining the National Rifle Association to support a county firearms law.
Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung said he was against the ordinance but didn’t want to put county attorneys in a bad position.
Chung said the county attorneys, who asked the Council for the help, would be able to use the time freed up by the free attorneys to do other necessary legal work for the county.
Seventy people weighed in on the issue during a long Council day, with 64 in favor of accepting legal help and six, including an attorney for the other side, opposing the free assistance.
Margery S. Bronster, a former state attorney general hired by the groups suing the county, told the Council that Paul Achitoff, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s mid-Pacific regional office and former counsel of record for the Center for Food Safety, would have a conflict of interest in the case. She said that’s because the anti-GMO groups have a different agenda from the county.
"I would submit to you that the law does not allow it," Bronster said.
Many testifiers were incredulous that Bronster would appear before the Council and advise members on their legal rights.
"If the other side says, ‘Don’t hire that attorney,’ I’m going to be the first to hire them," said Keone Silvestrone.
The county ordinance bans growing GMO crops in open-air conditions, with some exceptions. Papaya and corn already growing on the island, as well as scientific study in greenhouses and other enclosed settings, were exempted by the county ordinance.