- Associated Press - Friday, June 3, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii’s land board on Friday again affirmed a retired judge to oversee Thirty Meter Telescope permit proceedings despite calls for her removal from the project’s builder and those who opposed building the telescope atop Mauna Kea.

Permit applicant University of Hawaii Hilo also requested a new hearing officer.

No qualified hearing officer candidate will satisfy everyone, the order said: “The board will not go down this rabbit hole.”

Retired Big Island Judge Riki May Amano didn’t immediately return a phone message seeking comment.

There are different reasons for wanting to replace her. Telescope opponents raise conflict-of-interest concerns over her paid family membership to the Imiloa Astronomy Center. The university takes issue with her mediating another matter involving the Manoa campus. The nonprofit telescope company says replacing her with an alternate would avoid further delay.

“With due respect and consideration to the parties’ various interests and reasons for asking the board to replace Judge Amano, the board cannot and will not sidestep its own administrative responsibility to exercise judgment and common sense regarding whether the selection process up until now has objectively appeared to be fair,” the order said. “Common sense must prevail.

A three-person committee selected Amano as the most qualified applicant after a procurement process mandated by law, the order said.

The university agrees Amano is well-qualified but still believes she should be replaced, said spokesman Dan Meisenzahl. “We stand by our statements and we’re exploring our options,” he said.

TMT International Observatory said in a statement it respects the decision: “We look forward to being a party in the contested case and participating in the proceedings.”

A new contested case hearing is necessary because the state Supreme Court in December invalidated the project’s permit, ruling the land board should not have issued a permit to construct the telescope on land designated for conservation before it held a hearing to evaluate a petition by a group challenging the project’s approval.

“We believe the TMT project is already on extremely tenuous legal grounds as a result of the board’s actions and the presentation of substantive evidence through the contested case process has not even started yet,” said Richard Wurdeman, the lawyer representing the group of petitioners.

The telescope has faced intense protests by those who say it will desecrate sacred land.

Telescope officials have said they want a permit in place by the end of the year or early next year in order to resume construction in 2018. Meanwhile, telescope officials are looking for possible alternate sites in case it can’t be built in Hawaii.

Amano previously scheduled a June 17 hearing in Hilo for multiple requests by project opponents and supporters who want to participate in the contested case hearing, including TMT. Currently, the only parties involved are the university, which leases the land from the state, and the group who challenged the permit approval.

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