- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - Opponents of a giant telescope and the nonprofit company that wants to build it on Mauna Kea agree on something: It’s time for a new hearings officer to oversee proceedings for the project’s construction permit.

TMT International Observatory filed a request Thursday asking to replace retired Big Island Judge Riki May Amano with an alternate hearings officer.

Those who oppose the Thirty Meter Telescope, including protesters who say it will desecrate land held sacred to Native Hawaiians, have been calling for Amano’s removal. Among their objections is her paid membership to Imiloa Astronomy Center, which they say is a conflict of interest.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources affirmed her selection as hearings officer, saying that the membership simply allows her family to view exhibits and displays that focus on astronomy, Mauna Kea and Hawaiian culture. Amano said she wouldn’t renew the family membership, which was set to expire earlier this week.

The board was meeting Friday, but it wasn’t clear when members would discuss the replacement requests and make a decision.

Permit applicant University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus also wants to replace Amano. The university takes issue with Amano also mediating a matter involving its Manoa campus.

Amano couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Friday. In a letter to the land board, she explained that the dispute she’s mediating involves the funding of a faculty position to manage the W.M. Keck Research Laboratory in Astrochemistry at the Manoa campus. It’s unrelated to the telescope case, she said, and won’t affect her impartiality as contested case hearings officer.

The university and the telescope company don’t agree with the opponents’ reasons for replacing Amano. The university said in its request this week it was doing so reluctantly and believes she is “eminently qualified.”

Replacing her is the “only option to ensure that this contentious issue and any alleged appearance of impropriety is resolved,” the TMT filing states. “This will also minimize any further delay caused by Judge Amano’s selection as hearings officer.”

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.

Richard Wurdeman, an attorney representing the group challenging the permit approval, called TMT’s request “presumptuous” because the organization is not a party to the contested case hearing. TMT, along with others who support or oppose the project, is asking to participate. Currently, the only parties are the group and the university.

TMT officials have said they want to have 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.

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