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Citizens’ initiatives sending a signal to those at Capitol

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There is a pattern developing. This year, two federal judges and the state Supreme Court have been asked to dial back the neighbor islanders.

The judges said no to county voters on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island.

This week, U.S. District Chief Judge Susan Oki Mollway squelched a Maui ordinance that would have prevented the growing of genetically engineered crops on Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

Maui voters back in November approved a ballot initiative — that is, an ordinance written by the citizens and not the County Council — that would ban GMO gardening on Maui. In one of the few times that political big bucks didn’t win, the GMO big boys — Monsanto Co., Dow AgroSciences and others — dropped $7 million on the election.

If they had just given every registered voter in the county $80, it might have been a more successful use of the millions, because they lost the vote.

But they won in court.

Judge Mollway, in a level-headed, clear-eyed explanation of both her mission and reasoning, said a county can’t ban GMOs — it is a job for either the state or federal government.

“Any court is a reactive body that addresses matters before it rather than reaching out to grab hold of whatever matters may catch a judge’s fancy because the matters are interesting, important or of great concern to many people,” Mollway said.

Hawaii island and Kauai voters last year also pushed through their own new regulations against GMOs and pesticides. U.S. Magistrate Barry Kurren knocked those down, pointing out that they were superseded by state law.

Although not a legal issue, but worth noting, is the fact that there is little scientific evidence supporting claims that engineered food is dangerous or unsafe.

Another voter-inspired law was doused by the Hawaii Supreme Court last week when it issued the final “no way” ruling on the ordinance telling cops to go easy on pot smokers.

Officially known as the Lowest Law Enforcement Priority of Cannabis Ordinance, marijuana activists put it on the ballot in 2008 and, although it got little coverage, it passed by a vote of 35,689 to 25,940. Supporters then had to sue to have the police enforce the non-enforcement.

The Circuit Court pointed out that the state already has laws on marijuana; the appeals court noted that the state created the counties and the counties cannot ignore state law; and now, in a 27-page opinion by the state Supreme Court, the matter has been settled.

The political upshot of all this is the new signs of rising frustration by folks who want laws changed.

The sentiment is: Those louts down at the Capitol won’t listen to me or my buddies.

The thinking goes: We want GMOs stopped, we want pesticides stopped and we want the cops to stop busting us for smoking pot — so how come you aren’t doing anything about it? If the County Council won’t stop GMOs or the Legislature won’t let us smoke, then we will pass our own laws.

Critics might think the reaction is immature and lacking in political sophistication, but there is more involved.

The question is not about how to write a legal county ordinance; the point is that for many there is a fear that government exists for the sake of government and not its citizens.

Heading into the Fourth of July weekend, it is a good time for those who run Hawaii’s government to think about how to make it open, accessible and understandable.

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at

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