Water Rates Protested at Capitol

Fair process demanded of State officials.

By Catherine Cluett

All eyes were on Molokai as over 30 Molokai residents and supporters packed into a meeting room in the state capitol building last Thursday. The words “extortion,”
”unprecedented,” and “crisis” echoed around the room as TV cameras scanned the group, waiting for a press conference to begin.

Resource conservation group Hui Ho’opakale ‘Āina (“Rescuers of the Land”) and supporters, were on a mission: to demand a fair and just process to re-examine soaring water utility rates on Molokai, as well as raise statewide awareness of the situation. Stops included the offices of Governor Lingle, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the Ombudsman, and the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA).

After Molokai Ranch threatened in June to cut water services to 1,200 residents, the PUC hastily approved exorbitant rate increases, as high as 178%. State representatives said the unprecedented move was necessary in order to keep the Ranch’s faltering utility companies from going under.

“My parents and other kupuna are on fixed incomes; I don't know how they're going to pay their water bill,” said Byron Espaniola of Maunaloa. He said his mother, Josephine, already pays $200 a month for medical treatment.

Purpose of the Trip
The purpose of the protest, explained activist and Molokai resident Walter Ritte at the press conference, was not to request decreased water rates, but to ask lawmakers to void the original process, and to hold a second hearing. Many Molokai residents feel that the first hearing, held by the PUC on July 15, did not afford them a chance to speak out against the increases and was arranged more as an announcement than a hearing, with the facts presented in a muddled and hurried manner. There was no process on the part of the PUC, argue Molokai residents, to find out what the rate should have been before it was set.

Support
Hui Ho’opakale ‘Āina drew many supporters from ohana and concerned residents of Oahu. Daniel Anthony from Wai’anae brought his two young daughters along on the protest. He said he was there because of them. “I’m raising them to fight for their rights,” he explained. “They’re going to see water prices rise astronomically in their lifetime.”

Manu Mook, also an Oahu resident, joined the group in their march and added a ceremonial presence with the blowing of his pu. He explained he was concerned for Molokai residents, and also about setting a statewide precedent caused by the rate increase.

Representative Mele Carroll and Senator Clayton Hee, both of whom spoke during the press conference, also added well wishes to the group. “The Ranch should not walk away from its legal and moral obligations,” said Carroll. “This is injustice, and I stand in support of the people of Molokai.”

“This land developer could be on any island, it just happens to be Molokai,” said Hee. “This is not magical, this is not complicated. It’s simply about a profiteer on an island that wishes to do what the island is not suited to do.”

Molokai resident Timmy Leong added that the rate hikes could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. “With gas prices on Molokai at $5.16 per gallon, high costs of food, and soaring electricity rates, the water rate increase is just too much.”

Official Reactions
Holding colorful signs up high with messages like “Lingle on the wrong side… again,” “Water is a right,” “Da Ranch should pay,” and “Fight back,” the group marched up the stairs and along the balcony of the capitol building to their next stop: Governor Lingle’s office. The activist group came prepared, bearing letters to each office they planned to visit, stating their goal and complaint.

“I appreciate your taking the time to come here. We’re looking for the same thing, and hopefully we can come to a solution we all agree on,” said Lingle’s chief of staff Barry Fukunaga.

But it’s unclear what that solution might be or whether or not the Governor will support Molokai residents. As Molokai protester Jim Stone points out, Governor Lingle used to live on Molokai. “The governor forgot about us,” he said.

“There are other ways to deal with this than putting the cost on the people,” explained Ritte in the office of the PUC.

A secretary took the message. “I will take the files and make sure the commissioners see them,” she explained with a skeptical smile through the glass barrier, surveying the crowd packed into the small office lobby. None of the commissioners were available to meet the group.

“Well, please give them a message,” Ritte told her. “Watch the news tonight.”

Hawaii State Ombudsman Robin Matsunaga, who is investigating the PUC and DCCA involvement in the Molokai rate increases, told protesters the investigation was not yet complete, and that the office “cannot guarantee the results.” But, adds Matsunaga, “We are acutely aware of how this affects all of you.” He assured them the office is doing its best to complete a thorough examination of the agencies.

Catherine Awakuni, Executive Director of the Division of Consumer Advocacy at the DCCA, responded to the protesters’ request for another hearing with her own request. “We also need help,” she said. “This is unprecedented, but we made the best decision based on the information we had. We need more information about what people can pay,” Awakuni added. She was unclear about just how the DCCA planned to get more information.

The rate increase will remain in effect for up to six months until a more comprehensive investigation can be completed.

Awakuni explained that the DCCA normally limits rate increases to no more than 25%, and that an “increase of greater than 25% constitutes rate shock.” But in light of the threat of Molokai Properties walking out, the Consumer Advocate approved the rate, deeming it a better alternative for Molokai residents than a loss of water utilities.

“There was not adequate information at the time for a normal review,” added Awakuni. The DCCA plans to gather that missing information in the next six months.

Mana’o
Hoi Ho’opakele ‘Āina and supporters gathered on the grass under the shade of a spreading tree outside `Iolani Palace after their march to talk story and share their thoughts.

Jim Stone opened the mana’o session by sharing his congratulations to the group for conducting such a “civilized and non-violent protest, working within the system.” “I’m proud to be a part of it,” he added.

Molokai resident Edna Cathcart echoed Stone’s sentiments. “Although we were hurt,” she said, “we held that hurt and conducted ourselves with pride.”

Former Ranch employee `Anakala Pilipo related how difficult it was to challenge Ranch authority and stand up for what he knew was right. “But you have to have pono,” he said. “It starts with the individual.”

Judy Caparida talked about the spirit of Molokai residents. ““Even if you don’t see us, we’re not sitting around doing nothing.”

Future Action
The group certainly isn’t sitting around; neither is it stopping after one trip. A similar protest will likely follow, this time on Maui to push lawmakers to consider the option of eminent domain against Ranch lands.

Legal action on the part of Molokai residents has also been discussed, with a possible law suit against the Ranch in the future. Molokai resident and ratepayer Steve Morgan says his ideal resolution to the situation would be to see Molokai residents manage their own resources. “This isn’t one day,” he said of the protest. “It’s one of many.”

Mahalo to John Weiser for his time and resources in providing air transportation for the group.

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