Hawaii Senate President Donna Kim Mercado has chosen a Monsanto lobbyist to be on the group that recommends candidates for the state water commission.
The choice is a controversial one because the Commission on Water Resource Management controls the allocation of state water resources, and Monsanto, a huge agri-business company, has a major stake in how water rights are granted. The commission has been at the center of fights among developers, large plantation owners, environmentalists, the military and Native Hawaiian groups.
A four-member selection committee chooses candidates for most slots on the seven-member water commission.
The committee forwards the nominees to the governor who picks a candidate who still has to be confirmed by the Senate. Two positions on the commission will become vacant at the end of June.
Last week, Kim appointed Alan Takemoto, the community affairs manager at Monsanto, to the nominating committee.
The company, which tests genetically modified organisms on seed crops in Hawaii, recently applied to the water commission for a permit to use 2.6 million gallons of water a day from a new well in Waipahu-Waiawa. The permit was denied.
Takemoto was recommended by Sen. Malama Solomon, who received at least $2,500 in campaign donations from Monsanto during this last election cycle, according to campaign finance records. That’s about 2 percent of the $115,000 total Solomon took in during the campaign.
Solomon, who made the recommendation to Kim, did not return a call for comment.
But Kim, who records show also got $500 in campaign donations from Monsanto, defended the decision. As Senate president it’s ultimately her choice, but she said that she deferred to Solomon because she is chair of the Senate Water and Land Committee. Kim said that she reviewed Takemoto’s experience and that she believes he is qualified.
“He has this broad experience, and I thought it would be important that someone be representative of the agricultural community,” said Kim.
Takemoto did not respond to a call from Civil Beat.
But Kim noted that his experience goes far beyond working for Monsanto. Takemoto has also served as director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation and is on the board of the Agribusiness Development Corporation.
“Being one of four people, it’s hard for me to imagine that all three names will be all Monsanto people,” said Kim. “So I think there is a balance.”
As for Monsanto’s campaign contributions, she said that isn’t a concern.
“If you look, I think people get all sorts of contributions,” she said. “If you eliminated everyone, than I don’t think the mayor would be mayor or the governor would be governor.”
Anti-GMO groups such as Occupy Monsanto and Babes Against Biotech immediately criticized the appointment on Facebook, circulating petitions and posters with such slogans as, “Hands Off Our Water!!!”
“Our major concern is that the lines between corporations and government are blurring right in front of us,” said Nomi Carmona, president of Babes Against Biotech. “And it’s an absolute conflict of interest for our Senate president to appoint a registered Monsanto lobbyist to a position where he would be appointing water commissioners.”
The water commission has become a political lightning rod. Last year, Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s nominees to the commission were opposed by groups such as Earthjustice and the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. The groups have contested two rulings on Maui by the water commission, which have gone to court. One of them — the Na Wai Eha case — is before the Supreme Court.
Isaac Moriwake, an Earthjustice attorney, said that as a lobbyist for the Hawaii Farm Bureau, Takemoto was “hostile to the public trust in water resources.”
The groups are closely monitoring who is chosen to the nominating committee and to the commission itself. In the past, the groups have criticized appointees for not having experience in water resource management and knowledge of Native Hawaiian cultural practices.
Because of the historical and legal complexity of the issues involving water rights, the law requires that commissioners, who are in charge of enforcing the state water code, have significant experience with water resource management.
However, there are no qualifications required for serving on the selection committee, according to Katie Ersbak, an assistant to William Tam, deputy director of the water commission.
The governor has also appointed two people to the selection committee, Rebecca Soon, CEO of Solutions Pacific, a business consulting firm, and Guy Kaulukukui, the former deputy director of the Hawai Department of Land and Natural Resources and an executive at Bio-Logical Capital in Honolulu.
The governor had initially picked John Radcliffe, a major lobbyist in Hawaii who has also represented Monsanto. But Radcliffe declined the appointment on Monday, according to Louise Kim McCoy, a spokeswoman for the governor.
The House Speaker picks the fourth member of the selection committee.
Former House Speaker Calvin Say chose Gary Caulfield, vice chairman and chief information officer for First Hawaiian Bank, shortly before leaving office in mid-January.
However, when the current House speaker, Maui Rep. Joe Souki, came in, he chose Denise Antolini, an associate dean at the William S. Richardson School of Law, where she previously served as director of its Environmental Law Program. Antolini previously worked for Earthjustice.
Ersbak said that the attorney general will decide which appointee will serve on the nominating committee.