Honolulu Star Advertiser, September 12, 2012
Editorial by Laura Thielen
The recent UH debacle taught us that it’s a bad idea for amateurs to invest state money. We paid $200,000 for that mistake.
How would you feel if we pay millions or lose public trust lands for the next mistake?
Critics of the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC) have focused on its superpowers to bypass land use regulations when developing state land. This is valid criticism. But it overlooks another PLDC superpower – the ability to invest state funds and to use public trust lands to secure development deals.
The PLDC is authorized to make speculative investments even when no professional investor is involved. The only statutory standard is that the PLDC have a “reasonable possibility that [it] will recoup at least its initial investment.”
So the goal is to invest state money in order to maybe break even? Does any trust hold its Board members to such low standards?
To further complicate matters, the PLDC can invest in the private companies it contracts with to develop state land. We’re not talking about building a snack shop in a state park. The PLDC is authorized to develop hotels and industrial projects. These are multimillion dollar developments.
How does the PLDC hold a developer accountable for meeting contractual obligations, when it is a part owner of that company? If state land secures a failed development, do we lose control over the land? Is there anything that assures us that the PLDC will enter into such agreements with only the public interest in mind?
We’ve learned the hard way that land is power in Hawaii. Over time we adopted strict standards to prevent abuse by state agencies.
For example, all seven members of the Board of Land and Natural Resources must disclose all direct and indirect interests in any organization doing business with the department; must disqualify themselves from any decision affecting such interests; no more than three members may be from the same political party; and any proposed sale of land must go through the State Legislature.
None of these safeguards apply to the PLDC.
The PLDC Board consists of five members; three department heads who serve at the Governor’s pleasure; one each appointed by the Senate President and Speaker of the House. There are no strict qualifications relating to investment or development expertise. No strict standards for disclosure or disqualification to prevent self-dealing. No express requirement that a PLDC sale of state land go through the State Legislature.
This paper’s recent PLDC editorial recognized concerns, but implied that we ought to give it a chance to see what it can do. Public Land Entity’s Power is Worrisome, September 2, 2012.
Then this paper criticized the state agency responsible for developing Kakaako (HCDA) for being too secretive and shutting the public out of discussion over the development of a 650-foot highrise. Kakaako Agency too Secretive. September 5, 2012.
Ironically, it is HCDA’s authority to bypass virtually all land use processes that allows it to be secretive. The land use processes are the checks and balances created to provide public access to information during the development process.
If you find HCDA’s secretiveness worrisome, just wait. HCDA’s powers are limited to a small geographic area in urban Honolulu. PLDC’s superpowers apply to more than onequarter of all the land in the state and all submerged lands.
Personally, I’d prefer we learn from the recent UH debacle. Let’s repeal Act 55 and the PLDC before the public has to pay a far higher cost for a much more painful lesson.
Laura H. Thielen
Department of Land and Natural Resources