Lā 180: OHA - Agency at a Crossroads Is Caught in a Power Struggle
Civil Beat SEPTEMBER 21, 2015 · By Chad Blair
Mauna Kea, ceded lands and internal battles occupy the quasi-state agency as Native Hawaiian nation-building looms.
The trustees for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs heard an earful from a half-dozen or so constituents at a board meeting in Waimea on the Big Island earlier this month.
But an internal struggle unfolded mostly unnoticed despite a controversial vote to merge two committees into a single new one in a move that one trustee says was designed to weaken her and another trustee and consolidate power within the OHA staff rather than its elected leaders.
The meeting took place in the open-air shelter of Kahilu Town Hall as unseasonable showers greened the outdoor surroundings that include Parker Ranch and the slopes of Mauna Kea.
The issues brought before OHA that morning were, for the most part, not unusual ones:
The arrests of Thirty Meter Telescope protesters (the most recent ones happened just hours before the Sept. 10 board meeting);
Worries that OHA is not getting its entitled share of ceded land revenue from the state (it currently totals $15.1 million annually);
Complaints that OHA’s community grants that, along with other grants and scholarships that total $9.4 million, could be going to more deserving groups, and
Difficulties registering to be part of an upcoming convention on Native Hawaiian self-governance (voting for delegates is set to begin in November).
The trustees also heard about other issues of Big Island concern, including the presence of unexploded military ordnance on Hawaiian lands, fears that a spaceport will be built in Kohala and an allegation that “crooks” are operating the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority in Kailua-Kona.
Telescopes on Mauna Kea, ceded land revenue to help Native Hawaiians and the distribution of grant monies are a big part of OHA’s kuleana, or responsibility. The fourth item raised at the Waimea meeting — nation-building — is largely out of OHA’s authority.
Although it is helping to fund the elections process being coordinated by Nai Aupuni, a nonprofit group formed last December, Nai Aupuni says it is separate and independent from OHA and the state. And yet, should the election referendum, or aha, proceed as planned next spring on Oahu, delegates could recommend a form of Hawaiian government, one that would be subject to a ratification vote by all certified Hawaiian voters.
Conceivably, that could eventually lead to the end of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the beginning of a new, unchartered era in the islands.
OHA is at a historic crossroads, a transition period that could lead to its dissolution as a public agency and its absorption into a new, as yet unidentified Native Hawaiian government that would have formal relations with the government of the United States.
That would bring the end to a controversial and influential organization that was formed in 1978 through a constitutional convention with the express purpose of righting the wrongs suffered by the indigenous population dating to the arrival of Captain James Cook 200 years before.
Contentious Committee Merger
The community concerns aired in Waimea were the “usual haranguing,” one OHA official said to Civil Beat, the kind that OHA often hears when it meets throughout the state.
The quasi-state agency, after all, with its corporate headquarters in Honolulu and a $36 million core operating budget, is the primary organization in Hawaii legally mandated to improve the well-being of Native Hawaiians. With all the money and responsibility that OHA has, it’s appropriate that it hear the views of Kanaka Maoli.
Receiving far less attention, however, was an agenda item that called for collapsing two OHA committees — one for Land and Property and the other for Asset and Resource Management — into a new one titled Resource Management. The committee merger was approved by the six trustees in attendance in Waimea.
The three absent trustees included the two chairs of the very committees that were eliminated.
Rowena Akana, who chaired the ARM committee, and Carmen Hulu Lindsey, who chaired the LAP committee — are not happy with the change, and Akana has accused board leaders of attempting to consolidate power, criticism that the chair of the new comittee, Colette Machado, dismisses.
The reason for the new committee is to cut costs by streamlining operations, said Trustee Robert Lindsey Jr., the board chairman.
“Make no mistake about it,” he explained in a written statement provided to Civil Beat. “This new committee is about enhancing the board’s ability to meet higher standards of ethics, transparency and accounting that are expected of our oversight responsibilities.”
The ARM committee will have under its purview 30 acres of Kakaako Makai land that OHA received in a 2012 swap with the state to settle $200 million in overdue ceded land payments and to help it develop a revenue stream.
The committee change illustrates a second aspect of OHA that is important in trying to understand its operations: A lot of crucial activities take place in committees and sometimes out of the public eye.
‘Business As Usual’
There is far more to OHA than committees, community concerns and internecine conflict. Its six strategic priorities — aina (land), culture, education, health, governance and economic self-sufficiency — are broad, far-reaching and challenging.
To pick just one of those priorities — health — consider that OHA research shows that 75 percent of Native Hawaiians are at risk or being obese or overweight. OHA-funded programs work to trim waistlines and help mothers receive prenatal care services.
OHA is also the state’s 13th-largest landowner, and its holdings include Waimea Valley on Oahu and Wao Kele O Puna on the Big Island, the latter nearly 27,000 acres in size and home to lowland rainforests.
It is two of the most recent acquisitions — Kakaako Makai and the Gentry Pacific Design Center, a 5-acre site now called Na Lama Kukui and home of OHA’s corporate headquarters — that have attracted particular scrutiny as the agency involves itself in commercial land management.
The land holdings and the potential development of some of them for commercial purposes to increase OHA’s revenue stream help explain why the committee merger raised some eyebrows.
A letter to the editor by Akana published in the Sept. 2 edition of West Hawaii Today detailed her concerns and illustrated OHA’s divisions.
“Trustees are the policymakers, but with very weak leadership at the helm of the board, our powers have been minimized,” she wrote. “OHA’s administrators and attorneys run the show and the trustees have been downgraded. Despite pledging to take back power, this chairman has not kept his promise to trustees.”
Akana added, “Consolidating committees will only centralize power under a few trustees who are favored by the administration. Despite early promises by this chairman to stop this kind of shenanigans, he has failed. So you can expect business as usual.”
The trustee reiterated her concerns in an interview with Civil Beat last month, saying that she and Hulu Lindsey were being ostracized by the OHA board.
“They want to get rid of both of us, because I am checking the budget so closely and watching every expenditure, and they don’t want me there,” Akana said. “When I ask for information from the CEO and administration, they say I am harassing just by asking for this information.”
Akana, who has been a trustee since 1990, described herself and Hulu Lindsey as trustees who could “really throw hammers” to stop the intentions of other trustees and OHA administrators.
“We stand in the way,” she said.
Hulu Lindsey said the committee merger was not a good move.
“I think that the committee I chaired has a lot more work coming toward it with Kakaako development,” she said. “I do know that the ARM committee has a lot of work already keeping track of the portfolio and finances in OHA. So to put it together (in one committee) I think is very overwhelming to the chair.”
Kamanao Crabbe, the OHA CEO, declined several requests for an interview.
Asked whether Akana and Hulu Lindsey had been ousted by the board for the purpose of consolidating power, OHA Chair Robert Lindsey (a distant relation to Hulu Lindsey) told Civil Beat last week, “People who know me and know me well know that I believe in collaboration, teamwork and working together. I am not about power. We have one fundamental role as trustees: We are policymakers, and our CEO, Dr. Crabbe, has one fundamental role, and that is ensuring that our policies, whatever ones we legislate, are implemented.”
Machado, the new committee chair, said she welcomed the change and said good relations between the Resource Management Committee and the administration would be necessary for it to perform well. She credited Robert Lindsey for his leadership on the matter and for emphasizing transparency and ethical approaches to governance.
“He’s trying to bring a balanced perspective,” she said, adding, “that has been the biggest downfall for our organization.”
Machado has been a trustee since 1996. The new committee vice chair is Haunani Apoliona, who has also been a trustee since that time. Both are former board chairs.
‘Water Under the Bridge’
Internal disagreements sometimes aired in public are not new to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
In 2013, for example, Akana filed a complaint with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission over OHA’s purchase of the Gentry property on Nimitz, questioning whether Apoliona had a conflict of interest in casting her vote in favor of the deal. Akana has not prevailed in her complaint and has considered legal action.
Last year, Crabbe was in hot water for writing a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, asking whether the Hawaiian Kingdom that was overthrown in 1893 still existed, thus making nation-building a moot point. Crabbe and the trustees soon resolved their differences and said they would move forward as one.
Crabbe’s contract ends in March, and he is undergoing a performance appraisal that is part of his contract. Lindsey told Civil Beat that the trustees and the CEO work closely together, and that he considers the Kerry flap “water under the bridge.”
Akana feels otherwise.
“He is always working against us,” she said of Crabbe, pointing to the example of the letter to Kerry. “He always has his own agenda.”
Other bridges remain to be crossed.
At the Waimea meeting, Crabbe explained to the audience that a recent audit determined that the amount of ceded land revenue OHA currently receives from the state “is substantially low.” Crabbe said OHA would make the issue part of its agenda in the 2016 Hawaii Legislature, which begins in January.
But at the Waimea meeting, Machado warned that there was no longer “a friendly environment” at the Legislature, especially with the loss of state Sens. Clayton Hee, a former OHA trustee, and Malama Solomon, both Native Hawaiians who are no longer in the Senate.
“We have no real champions to push for a greater percentage,” she said. “All the ringers have left the building.”
Lindsey agrees that OHA should get more money from ceded lands, which is set by law at 20 percent. The figure, he believes, should be closer to $30 million rather than the current level of $15.1 million.
As for losing champions at the Legislature, Lindsey said he has good relations with Big Island legislators — Lindsey represents Hawaii County for OHA — and has been friends and political allies with Gov. David Ige since the 1980s, when both were in the state House of Representatives.
The Coming Election
Attention on OHA may ease as the Nai Aupuni election and aha process gear up this fall and spring.
Nai Aupuni heavily advertised the Sept. 15 deadline to file as a delegate candidate — a deadline that was extended for a few days to accommodate about 50 people who had not yet been certified to run by the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission — and the Oct. 15 deadline to be certified to vote in the election period, which runs throughout November.
Election results are due Dec. 1 and the aha process is set to be held on Oahu from next February to April, right in the middle of the 2016 legislative session and just as a major election year unfolds.
“Why should Hawaiians seriously consider this opportunity to form a Hawaiian government?” asked a full-page ad that ran in the Sept. 6 issue of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “Hawaiians have historically been frustrated by federal, state and/or local governments exercising decision-making authority over issues that are of grave concern to them. These issues involve ceded lands, water rights, gathering rights, TMT and even OHA and the Hawaiian Roll Commission.”
A Hawaiian government formed by “a majority or near majority” of Hawaiians who reside in Hawaii, the add states, “will be a government that has standing to represent all Hawaiians who reside in Hawaii and thus will be in a position to secure the authority to make decisions to address these kinds of issues.”
A total of 40 delegates will be chosen in November’s election: 20 from Oahu, seven from the Big Island, seven from residents outside Hawaii, three from Maui, two to represent Kauai and Niihau and one to represent Molokai and Lanai.
Kuhio Asam, Nai Aupuni’s president, says about $2.6 million is being spent on the election process, supported by OHA grant funds to the nonprofit Akamai Foundation, a fiscal sponsor of Nai Aupuni. Asam said OHA has been approached for an additional $500,000, money that would also go to the foundation.
Neither OHA nor Nai Aupuni has any “direct or indirect influence” on the election of delegates and the convention and possible ratification of a governing entity. That responsibility lies with Nai Aupuni’s five-member board of directors, of which Asam is a member.
About 95,000 qualified voters have been certified by the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission (or Kanaʻiolowalu), a figure that Nai Aupuni officials say could be closer to 100,000 by the time voting starts.
Bill Meheula, Nai Aupuni’s legal counsel, says 95,000 voters represents a significant number of Hawaiians participating in the self-governance process. While the 2010 census reflects a Hawaiian population of 525,000 throughout the United States, Meheula says the “real important metric” is the number of Hawaiian adults residing in the state of Hawaii.
“That number is 185,000, and we’ve got 85,000 to 100,000 of them,” he said. “So you almost got a majority of Native Hawaiian adults living in Hawaii participating in this process, and that’s a significant number, under most standards. We have got a lot of Native Hawaiian interest in this process to select their leaders to discuss and propose a plan for Native Hawaiian self-determination, and perhaps even creating or reorganizing a Native Hawaiian governing entity.”
Meheula acknowledges that OHA’s dissolution may come from the formation of a Native Hawaiian government, but he described it as just one possible outcome.
“That is something for delegates to consider,” he said. “There are a number of possibilities that can come out of this. They are wide-ranging.”
Meheula is also dismissive of a pending lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch and the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii that challenges the constitutionality of Nai Aupuni. He says a major distinction between OHA elections, which the courts under Rice V. Cayetano and Arakaki v. Lingle allowed non-Hawaiians to vote in and run for its membership, is that the Nai Aupuni election is a private one that does not involve a state agency.
Asked about Nai Aupuni, OHA’s Lindsey said, “We cannot be involved in that process at all.”
But, he added, as a Native Hawaiian leader he is excited about the election.
“Since our government was overthrown in 1893, we have been waiting 123 years to have a process to have direct conversation with the federal government,” he said. “This is our time, I feel, to have that conversation. This process will give us the capacity to be able to do that.”