Council rejects state deal for reimbursement of police costs on Maunakea

The Hawaii County Council on Wednesday unanimously rejected a $10 million reimbursement deal with the state that would cover the costs of police enforcement at Maunakea Access Road.

After protests against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea closed the Maunakea Access Road in July, Hawaii County has accrued more than $5 million in law enforcement expenses as officers monitor the increased traffic on Daniel K. Inouye Highway.

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Soon after the protests began, Gov. David Ige promised the state would reimburse the county for protest-related expenses, and state and county officials — including Ige, Mayor Harry Kim and state Attorney General Clare Connors — signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to such a deal in November. Those signatories did not include members of the County Council, leading to consternation during Wednesday’s council meeting.

Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder was critical of the agreement during a council committee meeting Dec. 3, expressing frustration that nobody on the council actually was shown the agreement. Since then, council members had a chance to review the agreement, but Kanealii-Kleinfelder was no less concerned by it.

In particular, the agreement comes with a condition that the county enter into a five-year agreement with the state that would determine the usage of the money.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in five years,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “We don’t know what we’re agreeing to.”

Steven Hunt, deputy director of the county Department of Finance, explained that the reimbursement is not like one single-use check, but more like a line of credit with the state that the county can use to recoup funds while more expenses are incurred as the TMT protest continues.

But the ambiguous terms led some council members to fear that the five-year deal could be used to force the county to provide security for TMT-related construction convoys or other projects.

The state indicated that the county will remain responsible for traffic enforcement at the access road, which many council members said is increasingly unjustifiable.

“We’re wasting our time and our money up there,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter. “I’ve supported this resolution because I want our money back in our pockets. They’re not giving us a gift; that money is ours.”

Hawaii County Police Chief Paul Ferreira argued that the increased police presence around the access road has led to 22 DUI arrests on Daniel K. Inouye Highway that would not have happened without the increased enforcement, and that there has actually been a 22% decrease in traffic fatalities on the highway during the same period.

Kohala Councilman Tim Richards was the only council member to not speak against the resolution, pointing out that the county needs to be reimbursed sooner rather than later. However, other council members pointed out that the county has Ige’s word that the state will reimburse the county one way or another.

“I would like the administration to stop treating the council like a rubber stamp,” said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz. “I’m not OK with signing off on a $10 million blank check with no end in sight.”

The council voted against passing the resolution, with the intention to amend the agreement to remove some of the problematic items.

On social media Wednesday, several prominent protest leaders celebrated the council’s decision.

“The County Council, to me, displayed a lot of humility and accountability to their constituents … expressing that they made a mistake and they apologized for voting in support (at the last committee meeting),” said Andre Perez.

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Protest leaders including Perez, Noe Noe Wong-Wilson and Kahookahi Kanuha thanked their fellows for testifying in opposition to the resolution and urged social media followers to thank their council members for their decision.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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