Hawaii Island’s representative on the state Board of Land and Natural Resources was reappointed by the state Senate Friday despite opposition by several senators critical of his record.
Former Hawaii County Planning Director Christopher Yuen will continue his 14-year career on the BLNR after the Senate voted 16-9 in favor of reappointing him even though he had received negative recommendation by the Senate Committee on Water and Land.
The committee was critical of Yuen’s record earlier this week, voting 4-1 to recommend that the Senate reject his appointment after lengthy criticism by committee chairman Sen. Kai Kahele of Hilo and Sens. Kurt Fevella and Gil Riviere, both of Oahu.
The three renewed their criticism of Yuen during Friday’s session, arguing at length that the nominee lacked the necessary humility, compassion and open-mindedness for the position.
“We need — we deserve — a nominee who can bring all of us together, who respects his constitutional obligations, who can resolve conflicts,” Kahele said. “Mr. Yuen hasn’t demonstrated this.”
Kahele did not go into specifics regarding his grievances toward Yuen during his arguments Friday, although he alleged at the Water and Land committee hearing earlier in the week that Yuen may have interfered with the proper recording of the minutes of past BLNR meetings, which Yuen and BLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case denied.
“Mr. Yuen has served for 14 years,” Kahele said Friday. “But now it’s time to move on. … Colleagues, it is time to give someone else that opportunity.”
Fevella had more specific complaints. Addressing the Senate, Fevella said Yuen would repeatedly make decisions contrary to the rest of the board without scientific basis — in one case being the lone dissenter in a 6-1 BLNR vote in 2018 that denied a permit for an Ewa Beach developer to lower a flood control berm. Fevella said Yuen told him after that vote that he had no scientific facts on which he based his lone positive vote.
“I believe that he really did, at one time, love what he did, love his job,” Fevella said, but added that he is unwilling “to make any more sacrifices” where the BLNR is concerned.
Riviere also criticized Yuen’s “notorious habit of disregarding staff submittals,” noting that he has observed Yuen ignoring or dismissing lengthy research in favor of quick decisions – decisions which, Riviere commented, always seemed to favor developers over residents.
Sen. Les Ihara of Oahu also spoke against Yuen’s nomination, saying he was convinced by Yuen’s critics and unconvinced by his advocates: “Advocates lie,” Ihara said.
Among Yuen’s advocates were Big Island Sens. Lorraine Inouye and Russell Ruderman.
“I respect my colleagues for their due diligence, but it seems they’re holding Chris responsible for decisions made by the majority,” Inouye said, adding that Yuen’s record also shows several votes in favor of major conservation projects.
Ruderman said he has known Yuen for 30 years and lauded his record both in office and out.
“There are places on the Big Island that have been preserved because of his efforts as a private citizen,” Ruderman said, adding that he doesn’t agree with all of Yuen’s decisions but acknowledges that BLNR members must make difficult ones all the time.
Ultimately, Kahele was the only Big Island senator out of four to vote against Yuen.
“I’ve learned a lot now, and I can see where I need to be better in the future,” Yuen told the Tribune-Herald after Friday’s vote.
Yuen said he was gratified by the support of his colleagues as well as constituents who sent letters supporting his nomination.
“I didn’t take offense to anything that was said,” Yuen said. “I’ve probably had to vote on 100 controversial things in the last few years.
“I’m bound to make some people unhappy.”
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.