New suit claims lawmakers sought to punish UH by reducing number of regents

Updated: Dec. 3, 2019 at 6:02 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Former University of Hawaii Regent Jeff Portnoy blasted state lawmakers over a new law shrinking the size of the UH board, calling it vindictive.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Portnoy said the new law is unconstitutional and that he believes legislators were out to punish the university.

“The elimination of several of those positions in my opinion was totally retaliatory," said Portnoy, whose five-year term ended in June.

He said the bill is unconstitutional because lawmakers amended it into another bill at the last minute and did not hold required hearings. He also believes that it usurps the UH’s constitutional right to autonomy.

The new board makeup has fewer regents representing Oahu. Portnoy said that will hurt Oahu students and its campuses.

“Oahu, which has 70 to 80% of the students, has no majority on the regents. So there is a serious gerrymandering issue," Portnoy said, during a news conference announcing the lawsuit.

The bill was first proposed by Big Island state Sen. Kai Kahele three sessions years ago.

But state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who now chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, supported the bill this session. She said the proposal had several hearings in both the House and Senate.

“Nothing was gutted from the bill, and nothing was replaced," said Kim.

Portnoy and his attorney, Eric Seitz, said meddling with UHs autonomy is also unconstitutional.

“In this state, we have a long and disastrous history of Legislators interfering with in the operations of the university,” said Seitz.

But Kim said the new law aims to make the UH more efficient just as enrollment has declined.

She added that it’s the Legislature’s right to determine the size of the Board of Regents, noting that lawmakers in the past have increased the board’s size from 11 to 12 in 1997 and then to 15 in 2007.

“I’m not sure how it takes away from the autonomy. We increased it, so if we can increase it, we can decrease it," she said.

The suit is asking that a judge void the new law.

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