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Zip Needed In Public Decision Making

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By Lowell L. Kalapa
(Released on 4/22/12)

There are three or four measures pending in the legislative hopper that are roundly being criticized because they are being perceived as abrogating the environmental safeguards in the law in order to fast track certain shovel-ready construction projects.

Whether or not readers believe that these measures will cause serious damage to the environment or to the safety of the community is highly dependent on your perspective and certainly the debate is justifiable. However, what these measures underscore is the slow pace at which government works. While some of the slowness of government action is certainly attributable to the laws and regulations that have been layered upon year after year, a good part of the blame lies with the reality that many in the public sector do not want to make decisions purely out of the fear that the decision might be wrong.

That is not to say that decisions should be made willy-nilly without regard to the evidence and the facts of the situation, but decisions that are based on good hard research and are well informed are decisions that need to be made. Unfortunately, those in the public sector who oversee the compliance with all of the rules and regulations governing the permitting and approval of these projects see absolutely no need to expedite the applications for these approvals. And why should they? They are just doing their job and, oh yes, they want to make sure that they don’t make a mistake, overlook a minor detail, or commit to a design change.

What administrators in the public sector don’t recognize is that time is money. Every day of delay means more interest to be paid on the financing of a project, increases costs of labor and materials, and causes a delay in anticipated cash flow from the project. Meanwhile, delays in the planning and permitting process, land use changes or rezoning process is another day without work for construction workers. Thus, the interest in these bills to bypass certain safeguards is not so much about moving state projects along, but about the entire permitting system in Hawaii and the impact it has on the economy. Some have questioned why these bills address only public projects. What about private projects where the skin in the game is the money of the private investors in a project?

Thus, this legislative attempt to bypass these rules is nothing more than an indictment of the system that they created. However, the reasons for those rules and the expected outcomes should be very clear and understandable such that the outcomes can be achieved in a variety of ways.

For example, when the law that mandated accommodations for those with disabilities was passed, the response was to do the obvious. Make alterations to accommodate those who have physical disabilities to access the same kinds of services and products that those without disabilities could do. So in the case of a water fountain, the initial reaction was to lower the water fountain so a person who was in a wheel chair could access the stream of water from the fountain. But after good, reasonable thought, the government accepted that paper cups placed next to a water fountain could work as well. The wheel chair bound person could still turn on the spigot and collect the water in the paper cup in order to get that drink of water.

Another example is the requirement that a project had to be landscaped within ten feet of the boundary line. To the inspector, that meant growing vegetation. The reasonable compromise turned out to be a gravel garden much like the Zen gardens of Kyoto where the priests rake the gravel each morning and afternoon to form a new landscape to contemplate.

No doubt rules and regulations which govern a variety of projects are placed there or adopted to do the right thing in the protection of the health and safety of the community or the protection of Hawaii’s fragile environment. And, no doubt, everyone wants to do the “right thing” for what is good for the people of the community. The problem is that those who must approve or disapprove are hesitant to make those decisions because they don’t want the blame for making the wrong decision. What they forget is the old adage that says, “not to decide, is to decide.” In order words, indecision is a decision not to do anything.

In also reminds us of a thought from Marion Anderson who said: “There are many persons ready to do what is right because in their hearts they know it is right. But they hesitate, waiting for the other fellow to make the first move – and he, in turn, waits for you.”

Lowell L. Kalapa is the president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii. Mr. Kalapa’s commentary is printed each week in the Maui News, West Hawaii Today, Garden Isle News, and the HawaiiReporter.com


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