DLNR-sponsored newspaper ad

BY JIM DOOLEY – The Department of Land and Natural Resources violated state law by advocating passage of a constitutional amendment on Tuesday’s general election ballot, Acting Attorney General Russell Suzuki said.

The proposed amendment, which was narrowly rejected by voters, concerned repairs to agricultural dams and reservoirs. DLNR paid for newspaper ads that recommended a “yes” vote on the measure.

“We have advised the DLNR that while it is appropriate to expend moneys…to educate the public about dam safety, it is not appropriate to advocate that the public should vote “Yes” on Constitutional Amendment No.1,” Suzuki wrote in a letter yesterday.

The Hawaii Supreme Court established that precedent five years ago in a case that challenged a similar ballot advocacy effort by Honolulu Prosecutor Peter Carlisle during the 2004 general election.

That ruling drew a distinction between providing educational information about a ballot issue and “blatant advocacy” for or against it.

“The DLNR believed it was properly exercising its authority under (state law) to disseminate information to the public regarding dam safety,” Suzuki’s letter said.

But the effort was improper because it advocated passage of the amendment, Suzuki said.

“We are satisfied that the DLNR’s actions were the result of a mistake with no evidence…of criminal intent,” Suzuki wrote.

The letter was sent to state Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th Dist. (Hawaii Kai, Aina Haina, Kahala, Diamond Head) after he questioned the legality of DLNR’s effort.

Slom is a supporter of, and contributor to, Hawaii Reporter.

“I thought there had been a written ruling that you can’t take a position on such issues,” Slom said today.

“When I talked to Russell Suzuki, he said it was ‘just a mistake,’” Slom said.

“I asked if he was going to put something in writing and, he said they do it on a ‘case-by-case basis,’” Slom continued.

“Then he asked if I wanted something in writing now and I said yes,” said Slom.

Deborah Ward, public information officer of DLNR, earlier defended DLNR’s efforts on behalf of the amendment as educational and legal.

She told Hawaii Reporter she didn’t know how much money the department had spent on the campaign, which included purchase of large advertisement in the Honolulu Star Advertiser newspaper.

Ward said today the department would have no further comment until after the three-day weekend.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which won the 2007 Supreme Court case involving Carlisle’s advocacy efforts, has asked DLNR for public records about its advocacy efforts on behalf of this year’s constitutional amendment.

The proposed amendment would have allowed owners of dams and reservoirs to pay for repairs with the proceeds of special purpose revenue bonds.

The bonds would have been issued though the state, but the owners would have been liable for repaying them.