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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, April 15, 2005

Legislators must protect people of Hawai'i

By Richard Port

For a newspaper that usually gets it right, The Advertiser got it wrong with your April 10 editorial when you stated, "The responsibility of legislators is to set broad policy through sensible laws on behalf of the people of Hawai'i. Period."

You certainly leave the wrong impression if you believe that citizens should not have a right to request their legislators to listen to, and even do something about, their problems and concerns. Whether citizens live in Montana or Hawai'i, they want to believe that their legislators represent them personally. That is what Leon Rouse wanted.

Why do we have a "Brady" bill or an "Amber" alert if individual citizens cannot petition their legislators for help? California is now considering a "Christie" bill that would hold police officers accountable in some types of automobile pursuit cases on public roads.

Closer to home, a decade ago condominium law was changed in Hawai'i because one young girl's pet died. Hawai'i law used to say that if a condominium changed its by-laws to prohibit pets, an owner could keep his current pet but could not bring a new pet into the condominium when the pet died. However, the girl petitioned the Legislature to change the law, and it was, in fact, changed to grandfather the owner rather than the pet, thus allowing owners to have a pet so long as they lived in that condominium.

Hawai'i's law and, I am certain, the laws of other states are filled with legislation that has been adopted through the efforts of one or more individuals requesting help from legislators.

I have been known to take on my fellow Democrats in the past and will do so in the future when they fail to live up to their fiduciary responsibilities to fellow citizens. However, as a former member of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission and as someone who has always been interested in ensuring worker rights are honored, I find Norwegian Cruise Line's treatment of Leon Rouse, the citizen Sen. Brian Kanno was trying to help, appears to have been shabby at best. To hire Rouse in Hawai'i and fire him in California without a hearing and without providing airfare home may have been legal, but it lacked class or aloha.

Businesses need to be free from excessive interference by legislative bodies, but businesses should also be expected to treat their employees humanely. There is a natural tension between businesses that would like to be left alone and workers who believe that, in America, they have a right to fair treatment. Many workers are finding that they and their jobs are vulnerable to the whims of their employers. In effect, they are sometimes treated like an expendable piece of meat.

It appears that Sen. Kanno, in his dealings with Norwegian Cruise Line, was motivated by his role as chairman of the Senate Labor Committee and his commitment to the civil rights of an American citizen and certainly not by any campaign contribution or support that Rouse would ever be able to give him. It also appears that Sen. Kanno was concerned as to whether the civil rights of Leon Rouse had been violated.

The notion that Sen. Kanno was seeking "unwarranted privileges or advantages" for himself or Rouse, as alleged by Senate Republicans, is truly ridiculous. The 200-pound gorilla in this case is Norwegian Cruise Line. Sen. Kanno did not stand to gain anything by helping Rouse, who is not a lobbyist, only an average citizen.

Republican Sen. Fred Hemmings' statement in Wednesday's Honolulu Advertiser referring to Sen. Kanno's conduct as "legislative power being leveraged to extort a favor from or an action from a private-sector company" is absurd. Sen. Kanno was responding to a citizen's belief that he was being unfairly accused of sexual harassment without the opportunity to face his accuser as other employees had been allowed to do, summarily fired by a company that had arbitrary sexual harassment procedures and ordered off a ship 2,000 miles from home.

Sen. Kanno and other legislators thought this conduct outrageous and wrote a letter requesting clarification of the Norwegian Cruise Line's sexual harassment procedures. When the company stonewalled, a resolution was introduced to look into how this company, which has been sued by at least one travel agency for poor performance, is conducting its business in Hawai'i.

If the resolution had been heard, Norwegian Cruise Line would have had to state precisely what the company's sexual harassment procedures are and justify why they had treated one of Hawai'i's employees one way and others a different way.

I urge our citizens and our media to step back and consider carefully both sides of this issue before passing judgment in the case of Sen. Kanno's conduct or the conduct of any other person involved in this matter.

Richard Port is the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.