More than 20 outdoor groups and enthusiasts have filed a complaint with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission against Rep. Sylvia Luke after she removed language from a bill that seeks to grant the state and counties immunity from lawsuits on unimproved public lands. In addition to her role as Finance Committee chair, Luke is an attorney with Cronin, Fried, Sekiya, Kekina and Fairbanks, which bills itself as Hawaii's largest personal injury law firm.
"If she takes out this verbiage that we're concerned about, then basically she gets to keep all her clientele," said Marcus Griego, of 808 Caveman Hiking. "If she were to leave it in, she loses clientele."
Outdoor groups began mounting a campaign against Luke last week after she removed language from SB 1007 HD1, which states signs warning of "dangerous, non-natural conditions on unimproved public lands" are adequate to protect local government from lawsuits.
Without the language in the bill, hikers, mountain bikers and climbers fear the state and counties will continue to close popular outdoor areas out of fear of being sued. The move to keep such areas open is supported by a petition with more than 2,000 signatures.
"We want to reopen closed trails; we don't want to see more areas get closed down," said Michael Richardson, owner of Climb Aloha in Palolo. "But it's not just about climbing, the whole outdoor community is concerned about this."
In an interview Thursday with KITV4, Luke denied the allegation that she's looking out for her own interests as a personal injury attorney. She said the ethics complaint against her was likely the result of mounting frustration by outdoor groups, which have been prevented from visiting a climbing spot in Mokuleia known as The Wall ever since a 12-year-old girl was critically injured by a falling rock in June 2012.
"I think through communication we'll have a better approach and they will understand that my interest is protecting the state," said Luke. "It comes down to communication and hopefully we can have a discussion about how we can open up these lands, but at the same time you need to give up the right to sue the state."
Luke says a better way to protect the state and counties from lawsuits arising from activities on unimproved lands is to set up an online permitting system for outdoor enthusiasts, where liability would be waived by each individual or group. She envisions the Department of Land and Natural Resources taking the lead on such a website.
"It would provide full protection, whereas in the bill we would always be behind two steps," said Luke.
The language removed by Luke in SB 1007 HD1 was suggested by DLNR chairman William Aila, who wants a 2003 law regarding signage and liability known as Act 82 made permanent. Aila said the language in the bill would have allowed "warning signs to be effective in specific areas of department land on Oahu where activities such as established, non-commercial recreational rock climbing occurs."
Richardson, meanwhile, doesn't believe Luke's suggestion for a permit-waiver system is a workable solution.
"Adding another permit system is another layer of bureaucracy for the state," he said. "Does DLNR have time and money and resources for that? I don't think so."
As for the ethics complaint against Luke, it likely faces an uphill climb. Hawaii lawmakers are granted immunity for official actions taken while in office, which is codified in state statute as well as the Constitution.
According to Article III, Section 7, of the Hawaii Constitution, "No member of the legislature shall be held to answer before any other tribunal for any statement made or action taken in the exercise of the member's legislative functions."
"That's something that needs reform, too," said Richardson.
However, House Speaker Joseph Souki tells KITV4 lawmaker immunity for official actions taken in office is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.
"The immunity is throughout for the legislators because otherwise we can't do anything," he said. "They will be hamstrung. So of course we have immunity for a period of time."