Lifeguard bill included on intent-to-veto list

Saturday, June 24th, 2017 - Jobs

Gov. David Ige released his intent-to-veto list of 15 bills Friday, which included a measure that would require the state attorney general to defend Maui County lifeguards manning Makena State Park against civil lawsuits.

The news of the governor potentially vetoing Senate Bill 562 on Friday did not draw much of a reaction from Maui County officials, who had wanted the state Legislature to provide broader protections from lawsuits for its lifeguards.

Mayor Alan Arakawa and the council members wanted the Legislature to extend Act 170, which provided county lifeguards with limited liability protection at state beach parks, “except for gross negligence or wanton acts or omissions.” It had been extended every five years since being passed in 2002 and currently is set to lapse June 30.

This year, lawmakers considered making the protections permanent. But the state House stripped immunity from the bill, added the attorney general provision, and passed it unanimously. Stuck with a take-it-or-leave-it situation with the protections set to sunset, the Senate agreed to the changes.

“This bill is objectionable because it requires the attorney general to defend the counties for any civil action or proceeding, without exception,” the governor said.

He said Friday that requiring the state to defend counties for any civil action is an overreach of state authority.

Attorney General Doug Chin told legislators that it would not be feasible for the state to pay an estimated $3 million a year annually to insure county lifeguards at state beaches. Maui County provides lifeguards at Makena State Park, which costs about $1 million annually with the state reimbursing only 60 percent, a county official told the council earlier this month.

While Senate Bill 562 was included on the intent-to-veto list, it is not a guarantee that Ige will veto the measure. He has until Monday to notify the Legislature of the bills he intends to veto.

The bills on the veto list include Senate Bill 1240 prohibiting the state Department of Land and Natural Resources from issuing new aquarium fish permits and establishing take limits, House Bill 727 allowing the operator of a motorcycle or motor scooter to proceed cautiously between stopped lanes of traffic and on the shoulder of highways and House Bill 1414 that requires the auditor to investigate and report on problems with the Department of Taxation’s tax system modernization project.

Any measure the governor has not signed or vetoed July 11 will become law.

Having the lifeguard bill on Ige’s veto list drew little reaction from county officials, who felt the measure was practically inconsequential.

“Whether he vetoes it or not makes little difference,” Arakawa said Friday. “Under the bill, we would have been only protected at the one state beach where our lifeguards are contracted to work, in Makena.

“Now, we have to protect our lifeguards against frivolous lawsuits while they save lives on beaches and in waters under state jurisdiction. That’s politics for you, the only ones who win here are the plaintiffs and their attorneys.”

Maui County Council Chairman Mike White said Friday that “the bill as it was written, does very little to protect Maui County or our lifeguards.”

While the attorney general would defend county lifeguards, the county still would end up paying judgments and settlements. The county might save on the legal costs with the bill, but White said it is preferable to have the county’s own Corporation Counsel defending county lifeguards.

“We don’t want a half-hearted defense,” White said.

He said “it is hard to understand why the state has a problem indemnifying lifeguards” doing work in the ocean, which is the state’s jurisdiction. He characterized county lifeguards as “agents of the state.”

“They are not willing to protect them, it is unconscionable.” White said.

The council chairman said that the county will continue to provide lifeguards at state beaches, despite the lack of legal protections. “We are not going to leave the lifeguards hanging out on their own,” he said.

It is in the interest of everyone to keep lifeguards at Makena, he said. It is not responsible to pull lifeguards from the beach with body-slamming waves.

At the same time, it is not responsible for the state to remove legal protections for lifeguards, he added.

State Sen. J. Kalani English, who introduced the original lifeguard protection bill in 2002, said that he was “sorry that our lifeguards may lose what little is left of their immunity.”

“Perhaps the governor and his administration has a better plan to ensure that our lifeguards remain on our public beaches and retain the confidence to perform their job,” said English, who represents East Maui, Upcountry, Molokai and Lanai.

South Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing, whose district includes some of the island’s top beaches, said that lifeguards “need some immediate protection” and that “the bill did not go far enough.”

He admitted that the Senate version that called for an extension of legal protections was better than what the House came up with. Ing is hopeful that the new leaders of the House, under Speaker Scott Saiki, will provide more legal protections for lifeguards.

“We are going to have to revisit this issue next year,” Ing said.

The possible veto of the aquarium fish bill, in which Ing had a hand, was disappointing, he said. Lawmakers have been working for three years on the sometimes heated issue and came up with a compromise agreeable to the parties.

He said that the DLNR’s opposition and call for more studies was “disingenuous.” The bill is intended to protect the ocean ecosystem, and if vetoed, “we will see less and less fish,” which is “bad for beachgoers and tourism and fishermen.”

“I think the governor will do the right thing and let this become law,” Ing said.

* The Associated Press contributed to this story. Lee Imada can be reached at [email protected]

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