HILO >> Hawaii County police stationed on Mauna Kea have issued more than 7,600 traffic
citations during the protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope, and a frustrated Hawaii County Council Chairman Aaron Chung is now describing police operations on the mountain as an enormously expensive “speed trap.”
The county has so far spent more than
$4.65 million on police overtime alone in connection with the standoff on the mountain, and several Council members Tuesday signaled their growing displeasure with the cost of the operation and the diversion of police resources from their communities.
The state recently reimbursed the county for $3.77 million of the cost of deploying police to Mauna Kea. But Chung and Councilman Matt
Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder voted Tuesday night to reject an agreement under which the county will continue to provide police enforcement on Mauna Kea, and the state will pick up the tab up to a cap of $10 million.
“Basically, they’re giving all of these tickets, and I don’t see any progress, so I don’t know what they’re up there for,” said Chung, who supports the TMT project. “We’ve spent more than
$4 million. Let’s cut our losses already,”
If police aren’t going to take action to open Mauna Kea Access Road so that construction of the TMT
can proceed, then the officers should leave the mountain, Chung said. “Either sweep or come down,” he said.
Police Chief Paul Ferreira declined to comment Wednesday on Chung’s remarks but said he has recently reduced the number of officers working on the mountain. Police have said officers are patrolling and ticketing passing motorists on Daniel K. Inouye Highway to enhance motorists’ and pedestrians’ safety.
The nonviolent protests on Mauna Kea at times have attracted thousands of people to the intersection of the highway and Mauna Kea Access Road, where the protesters are camped in a blockade of the access road, which has been closed since July 15.
The protesters, who call themselves kiai, or protectors, say building the TMT would be a desecration of a mountain that many Hawaiians consider sacred. They say they will not allow the telescope to be built.
Supporters of the TMT say the project has won the legal right to proceed. Sponsors of the TMT spent a decade obtaining permits and fending off legal challenges, but construction of the telescope remains stalled by the protests.
On July 17 police arrested 39 people for obstructing the road, but they have made no attempt since then to clear the road to allow work to begin at the TMT site near the summit. An undisclosed number of county police have been stationed in the area since the protests began.
Daniel K. Inouye Highway runs between the protesters’ main camp at Puu Huluhulu and the blockade on the access road, and streams of pedestrians regularly walk back and forth
between the sites. The speed limit on the highway is 60 mph, and Mayor Harry Kim’s office has been paying for crossing guards at the intersection of the access road and the highway.
Police announced that as of Wednesday they had issued 7,677 citations on the highway since mid-August and arrested 71 people for 132 offenses, but police say they don’t know how many of the people they ticketed or arrested have any ties to the protests.
The activists say the vast majority of those who are stopped, cited or arrested are passing motorists with no connection to the protest camp. However, at least some incidents did involve people at the camp, including a 37-year-old man who was arrested recently at the intersection for standing on the highway and “behaving aggressively and refusing to leave the road,” police said.
Kim’s administration is now asking the County Council for after-the-fact approval of an agreement between the state and county under which county police will continue to respond to the protests, and the state will reimburse the county for protest-related costs of up to $10 million.
That request won preliminary approval from the Council’s Finance Committee in a 7-2 vote Tuesday night. Council members were obviously unhappy with the request but said they were voting to approve the agreement because they want the county to be reimbursed for the police
Kim already has signed the state-county agreement, and Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder questioned whether it was legal for the administration to enter into the deal without prior Council approval. County Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela said the Council has ratified agreements after the fact in the past, and said he does not think the process is illegal.
Council members also
objected because they said they had never seen the state-county agreement.
Kamelamela replied that he did not have a copy with him at the meeting Tuesday, and said none of the Council members had ever asked to see it.
Finance Committee Chairwoman Maile David countered that the Council tried on “numerous occasions” to get more information about the agreement, and Kamelamela said he can provide the Council with a copy.
Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said the Council has “no idea” what is required under the agreement, and said the administration bypassed the ability of the Council and the “entire county” to have some say over the matter before the deal was signed. “I think today, this right here, it shows that we’re willing to bend the rules when it meets our needs,” he said.
Chung said in an interview he voted against the state-county agreement because “if we go open ended, that means they’re going to continue to stay up on the mountain. I’m in support of the project. I just don’t see why we have so many police up there.”
“I just think they should get the hell off of that mountain — everybody get off the mountain,” Chung said. The resolution to give after-the-fact Council authorization for the state-county agreement will now go to the
full Council for further
According to the latest figures released by the county and the state Attorney General’s Office, the state and counties have so far spent nearly $11.7 million in the past 20 weeks coping with the protests. The county share of that total is more than $5.18 million, of which $3.92 million has been reimbursed by the state.
The overall total of
$11.7 million includes the
expenses of the Hawaii County police, Hawaii National Guard, state Attorney General’s Office, state Department of Public Safety, state Department of Land and Natural Resources, state highways workers and the Maui and Honolulu police.