By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
Hotel security shut down a loud hospitality suite hosted by a lobbyist whose client list includes a GMO company, but most Hawaii County Council members attending the Hawaii State Association of Counties conference on Kauai last month said there was more county business than partying going on.
The conference, attended by county council members from all four counties, is an annual event that alternates locations.
Seven Hawaii County Council members — Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, Hilo Councilmen J Yoshimoto and Dennis Onishi, Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan, Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff and Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille — along with Deputy County Clerk Maile David, attended the June 20-21 event at the Kauai Beach Resort.
The conference cost Hawaii County taxpayers more than $8,218, according to travel expenses filed so far with the County Clerk’s Office.
“I think the HSAC conference is a good opportunity for council members to talk about issues that are common to our counties,” said Yoshimoto, who as council chairman approves travel requests. “I found the meeting really provided common ground for us to work togeher.”
Sessions on June 21 included “Importance of Preserving the Host Culture,” “Natural Resources Preservation,” “Kauai’s Cultural Assets” and “Expanding Opportunities with Hawaiian Organizations,” according to the HSAC conference brochure. The keynote lunch speaker was Camille Kalama, staff attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Counsel.
The first day of the conference, however, featured primarily social opportunities, including a golf tournament, poolside welcome reception and a late-night hospitality suite. The opening day also included an HSAC membership meeting and a field trip to the Hanapepe Salt Pan.
Wille, a freshman councilor attending her first HSAC conference, said she would have liked to have seen more sessions with council members communicating with other council members.
“I think we need to upgrade the level of these meetings. It just could be improved upon so there is more organized interaction between the different councils,” Wille said. “It seemed to me more of an opportunity for lobbyists to get together with council members. … It could be made less of a social occasion for council members to mix with lobbyists. Maybe I’m a party pooper.”
James Pacopac is a lobbyist for agricultural biotech giant Syngenta Hawaii LLC, as well as the county of Kauai, Kauai Island Utility Cooperative and other clients, according to his lobbyist registration filed Jan. 14 with the state. He is not registered as a lobbyist with Hawaii County, according to records kept by the Clerk’s Office.
Pacopac said hotel security asked him to shut down the hospitality suite just before midnight, not because the people were too loud, but because the door was making too much noise as people came and went.
“We were closing down anyway,” Pacopac said.
Pacopac said he was not lobbying for Syngenta at the hospitality suite. Both Hawaii County and Kauai County currently have bills in the works that would limit or require disclosure of genetically modified, or GMO, crops. Onishi, who is HSAC vice president, said HSAC President Mel Rapozo told him no GMO companies were involved in or sponsored the conference.
Rapozo, a Kauai councilman, said his understanding is that Hawaii real estate agent Richard Takase sponsored the suite, and Pacopac helped coordinate the refreshments.
“Every HSAC on every island, we always do a hospitality room, going on 37 years,” Pacopac told West Hawaii Today. “I was not representing Syngenta at the time.”
Several Hawaii County Council members said they stopped in the hospitality suite but didn’t stay. Onishi said he was there but left when security came up. Eoff and David said they didn’t go.
“I went up there and there was a lot of drinking going on and I don’t drink,” Wille said. “It was just sort of a party deal.”
“Whoever would want to go, it’s up to them,” Poindexter said. “But it wasn’t my thing. I didn’t stay too long.”
Poindexter said discussions with Kamehameha Schools representatives resulted in them agreeing to notify her when there are plans for their property, much of which is in her district. In addition, she said, she learned about Kauai’s electric cooperative.
Wille and David said GMO was a common topic, with David adding it’s a “hot topic” in both counties. Wille saw the agriculture session as having a “definite GMO slant,” while David saw it as “basically 50-50.”
Onishi was a panelist in one of the sessions, and he said he learned a lot about relating to the host culture as well as the tourist, in order to promote tourism while respecting the Native Hawaiian culture. He said discussions of farming techniques were also informative.
“You develop relationships with other council members,” Onishi said. “You can share the issues each island faces and solutions to problems.”
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford and Puna councilman Zendo Kern did not attend the conference. Ilagan and Kanuha, who did attend, did not return phone messages by press time Wednesday.
As for Wille’s criticisms, Yoshimoto said she seemed not fully engaged in the sessions and was multitasking on her computer.
“When members attend these conferences, it’s really up to the members to make the most of it,” Yoshimoto said. “It’s hard to criticize something that you didn’t even pay attention to.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.