By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
A post-session dinner attended Tuesday by four Hawaii County Council members and a recent county-sanctioned locked-door conference of farmers supporting genetically modified organisms have GMO opponents fearing they’re not getting a fair shake.
Council meetings this week, as well as one last month, have brought out hordes of testifiers, including hundreds of first-time political activists trying to get the council to pass bills limiting GMO crops on the Big Island. Several have been questioning officials’ actions.
The four council members who dined together at Outback Steakhouse in Kailua-Kona after an all-day session on the GMO bill — Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan and Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha — told Stephens Media they did not discuss the bill or any other council action. The council picked up the GMO issue again Wednesday.
In separate telephone interviews, they said they primarily discussed their families. Kanuha added they talked about golf. Onishi said they discussed the recent Hawaii State Association of Counties conference they attended on Kauai, but they didn’t discuss specific issues that could come up for votes.
“We can get together and eat,” Onishi said. “Seven of us used to go to Drysdale’s, so what’s the difference?”
The state Sunshine Law forbids more than two council members discussing matters that are presently before the council for official action, or reasonably anticipated to come before the board in the foreseeable future, said Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida.
Chandell Asuncion, a first-time testifier from Panaewa, shot a photo of the group dining, questioning if they were allowed to do that. She seemed satisfied with Ashida’s explanations Wednesday. Asuncion said she didn’t get close enough to hear the conversation.
Poindexter said she felt “harassed.”
The other controversy centered on an employee of the county Department of Research and Development unlocking a county conference room for the private use of a group of farmers and farm advocates who had come to testify in favor of GMO. Anti-GMO advocates were upset that the group was able to use county facilities, while they were barred.
“I would love a free meeting space. We’ve paid to rent park pavilions for meetings,” said Kerri Marks, a GMO opponent and Hilo Occupy advocate who video-records council meetings and posts them online.
R&D Director Laverne Omori said Wednesday that rules governing the use of conference rooms were clarified after the incident. She said a staff member opened the door for the group that made a last-minute request. She said R&D works with farmers, energy interests and other businesses in its role of economic development.
“It’s just an unfortunate situation. We try to be fair to everyone,” Omori said. “Our department now knows they will ask about the purpose of the meeting and staff will be in the room.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.