A state Senate committee rejected the appointment of Carleton Ching as chairman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources Thursday, setting the stage for a contentious vote in the full Senate over Gov. David Ige’s most controversial decision so far.
Members of the Senate Committee on Water and Land voted 5-2 to not recommend the nomination after two days of hearings that included testimony from dozens of unhappy environmentalists who argued Ching is not qualified to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources and its 900 employees. The committee also spent several hours Wednesday and Thursday grilling Ching on his background working for developers.
The nomination now goes to the full Senate for further consideration and a final vote.
The panel’s vote was:
» Against the nomination: Sen. Laura H. Thielen, committee chairwoman; Sen. Russell E. Ruderman; Sen. Les Ihara Jr. (with reservations); Sen. Maile S.L. Shimabukuro; and Sen. Gil Riviere.
» For the nomination: Sen. Brickwood Galuteria and Sen. Sam Slom.
Ching is by far Ige’s most controversial Cabinet-level nomination. Environmentalists object to having an agency tasked with protecting Hawaii’s natural resources led by someone with a strong background in development.
Most recently, Ching served as vice president of community and government relations for Castle & Cooke Hawaii, a development firm where he worked for more than a dozen years.
Hundreds of testifiers submitted more than 1,000 pages of written testimony before Wednesday’s hearing, with many opposing the nominee.
Opponents couldn’t understand how a career developer could switch gears and lead a department charged with protecting the island state’s natural resources, a concern echoed by some lawmakers on the panel.
"His career track has been the polar opposite of the DLNR mission," said Randy Awo, who recently retired after serving for 27 years in the enforcement division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
After the five hours of testimony about him, Ching defended himself before the committee. "Born and raised in these islands and being part Hawaiian, I have an innate and deep respect for this land, for this natural resource.
"To honor and respect our culture, to learn from our past."
"Providing shelter for Hawaii’s families is a good thing," Ching continued. "We built neighborhoods. We built community. We allowed families to build their equity."
"I will engage public and private stakeholders to find a balance, to find that sweet spot," Ching said.
Part of the hearing centered on a chapter in Ching’s past when he played a role negotiating leases for residents of Waiahole Valley, who were facing eviction from a private land owner. The state bought the land before Ching joined the Hawaii Housing Authority, and then Ching played a role working out agreements between parties.
"I have to say thank you to Carleton, ’cause he allowed us to have this taro patch land, and we’re trying to take care of it," said Calvin Ho, a taro farmer.
But Ching faced scrutiny for his volunteer work as a board member on the Land Use Research Foundation, a group that lobbied against historic preservation and protecting critical habitats and advocated for fast-tracked development that would bypass public and environmental scrutiny.
Ching said he didn’t always agree with the positions the organization took.
"I was unaware of the details, to be quite honest with you," Ching said about the group’s support for a fast-track development policy.
Lawmakers on the panel pressed Ching on his knowledge of the department’s responsibilities how he would prioritize competing interests of development, conservation and the rights of cultural practitioners. Ching replied that he would handle each situation on a case-by-case basis, and referred often to the need to weigh the costs and benefits of using lands in particular ways.
Ige defended his nomination, saying Ching is up to the challenge.
"I do see a leader in him," Ige said. "He wants to leave the state better than he found it, just like I do. I think we all do."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.