State senators to probe Stevie Wonder blunder

State senators to probe Stevie Wonder blunder

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The State Senate's Special Committee on Accountability will hold hearings late next month into the University of Hawaii's Stevie Wonder concert fiasco, asking UH officials to testify in public about their actions.

State senators said members of the public have been calling and emailing their offices to complain about the way UH officials handled the failed concert that was supposed to raise funds for UH athletics. People are also angry about how UH officials handled the aftermath of the canceled event, senators said.

State Sen. Donna Kim (D-Moanalua, Aiea, Halawa Valley) will chair the committee. She held up numerous letters to the editor sent the newspaper by people upset with what happened.

"The public has been outraged.  That there seems to be no transparency and accountability on the part of the Board of Regents and the University of Hawaii management and leadership," Kim said.

Kim's vice chair for the special investigative committee will be Jill Tokuda (D-Kaneohe, Kailua, Enchanted Lake), who chairs the Senate's Education Committee.

"The last few months have eroded some of that public confidence and public trust.  We need to restore that.  That's definitely important.  Our university system is such a vital part of our communities," Tokuda said.

The hearings will be held the third or fourth week of September, Kim said.

The Senate plans to call top UH officials to testify, including President M.R.C. Greenwood, UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple, Board of Regents Chairman Eric Martinson and former Athletics Director Jim Donovan.

"I'm very disappointed with the Board of Regents," Kim said. "Because I believe it's their job.  We shouldn't have to be holding these hearings and these meetings.  They should be the ones.  And short of them doing that, then we [state senators] find ourselves in the position that we are forced to do it."

"It's a public institution.  It's the taxpayers' money.  The public has the right to know who's making the decision and how much money it's costing us," Kim added.

Tokuda said senators have a fiduciary responsibility "to make sure that decisions are made properly within the university system and making sure that we can restore public confidence in the university system as a whole."

State Senate President Shan Tsutsui sent this memo Wednesday afternoon to all 25 senators, approving the briefing: "Pursuant to Senate Rule 20, I hereby appoint a Special Committee on Accountability to conduct an informational briefing or briefings, as may be necessary, to review the oversight, accountability, and transparency of the operational and financial management of the University of Hawaii System, including but not limited to the University of Hawaii at Manoa Athletics Department."

Besides Kim and Tokuda, the committee will include State Senators Les Ihara, Jr., Ronald Kouchi and Sam Slom.  Since the accountability committee is not a standing senate committee, the senate president assigns its members.

When UH officials appear before state senators, it will be the first time they've answered questions in-depth and in public about the Wonder blunder and the events that followed.  Previously, UH officials have spoken during brief 20-minute news conferences and through written statements like news releases, emails and web page postings.

It's not unusual for witnesses who appear before Kim's special committees to take questions for an hour or more, as she and other senators ask them to explain actions and compare officials' testimony to documents, reports, letters and other written material.

The special committee last held hearings in March during the legislative session.  That's when they called officials from several state departments, including the Department of Accounting and General Services, to discuss state employee salary over payments and the practice of pension spiking, when public employees run up their overtime to boost their pensions.

The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the union that represents nearly 4,000 UH faculty statewide, said Friday the Stevie Wonder blunder has created a "loss of confidence and respect" for UH and its leaders.

Kristeen Hanselman, UHPA's associate executive director, worried that the events of this summer could lead to more scrutiny by state legislators and a loss of autonomy.

Kim and Tokuda said they are not micro managing the UH or taking away the university's power.  The senators said they are giving UH officials a chance to "clear the air," explain their actions and justify financial decisions.

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