Gov. Ige ties payback to TMT construction access

Always Investigating

Gov. David Ige confirmed to KHON2 he’ll continue to support county law enforcement costs at the Mauna Kea telescope protest site as long as they’re working to ensure legal access for astronomers and Thirty Meter Telescope construction. But a state senator tells us Hawaii County should reconsider their police force’s involvement. This comes after KHON2 reported Tuesday how a letter from the governor has many fearing new conditions for reimbursement of county costs, which have soared into the millions.

Always Investigating was first to reveal Tuesday a letter the governor sent a county councilmember that many read as making paybacks for their cost outlays conditional on benchmarks, such as opening access for astronomers and TMT construction. It states reimbursements to Hawaii County Police Department will continue “so long as HCPD remains committed to maintaining control of the pertinent roadways,” adding HCPD is critical to getting access to the mountain for current astronomers and to “ensuring TMT may engage in the lawfully permitted construction of its telescope.” (See full letter at the bottom of this story, and this related coverage in our story Tuesday about the governor’s letter and the tally of statewide costs reaching $4.1 million).

Gov. David Ige told Always Investigating on Wednesday, after we requested clarification about the intent of the letter, that: “The state is working with the county to ensure legal, safe, peaceful access for all of those who have the legal right to be on Mauna Kea. That includes all of the astronomers and the people who work on the existing telescopes. That also includes the 30-meter telescope project. As long as we are working to ensure legal access for all those people, we will be supporting the county in enforcement costs.”

“It could be interpreted as Hawaii County won’t get reimbursed unless full access to Mauna Kea can be provided by the County of Hawaii,” said state Sen. Kai Kahele, (D) Hilo, “and ultimately leaving that bill, which is now over $3 million, to be paid for by the taxpayers of the County of Hawaii.. They were there to be in a supportive role. This is a state land. This is project that should be administered by the state.”

The Hawaii County Council at its Tuesday meeting tried to sort out what the letter meant. Representatives of Mayor Harry Kim’s administration and the police department said they had been under the impression all costs would be covered. Police roles have mostly been to keep the peace after higher-ups called off arrests in the opening days of the protests back in July.

“I’m just concerned that ‘so long as… remains committed,’” said Councilmember Maile Medeiros David, reading excerpts of the governor’s letter aloud at the hearing. “What does that mean?”

“That’s a fair question,” said Hawaii Police Department Chief Paul Ferreira. “It is a unified command up on the mountain. It’s not only the Hawaii county police department that’s up there. … I will take it to mean we need to maintain what we currently are doing and committed to maintaining law and order up on the mountain.”

State law enforcement also on the scene includes state sheriffs, DLNR-DOCARE officers, even state Attorney General investigators. Maui and Honolulu police officers were initially present for several days back in July.

“They should be there to make sure that the people that are there, that are exercising their rights and their freedom of speech and expression, that they should be protected as well,” Kahele said. “I think it’s time for the County of Hawaii, especially Mayor Harry Kim and the county council to have serious conversations about the involvement of County of Hawaii police officers while this is going on. Obviously that presence is taking away those officers from other important sectors of our community, and it’s clear to me that the protectors that are there on Mauna Kea have no intention of leaving any time soon.”

Councilmembers are inviting the public to weigh in on county law enforcement costs, and the governor’s letter about reimbursement conditions, at its next meeting Sept. 3 in Hilo.

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