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Events, ballot change draw large field of candidates for Office of Hawaiian Affairs

July 27, 2014 - 12:05am

It’s a pivotal time in history for Native Hawaiians and an unprecedented number of candidates want to be a part of it.

Events coalescing around the state have brought a dramatic increase in candidates seeking a seat on the board of trustees for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. OHA’s nine-member board is charged with setting OHA policy and managing the semi-autonomous state agency’s substantial trust for the benefit of OHA beneficiaries. The trust includes more than 28,000 acres of land and $600 million in financial and land assets, according to OHA’s 2013 annual report.

All Hawaii voters, Hawaiian or not, can vote for candidates and run for the board. Four of the nine positions on the board are designated as at-large seats representing the state as a whole, while the other five trustees represent each of the following districts: Hawaii Island, Maui, Molokai and Lanai, Oahu, and Kauai and Niihau.

OHA has often been in the news this year, as the state agency tries its hand at nation-building through a process known as “Kanaiolowalu,” loosely translated as “striving with many voices.” The process, which includes the formation of a Native Hawaiian roll, election of delegates and a constitutional convention, was created by the Hawaii Legislature through Act 195 signed in 2011 by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

The Hawaiian community hasn’t embraced the concept, with many saying they are distrustful of a process that is coming from state government, rather than arising out of a consensus by the community itself.

OHA Chief Executive Officer Kamanaopono Crabbe heaped fuel on the fire with a May 5 letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry requesting an opinion about Hawaii’s legal status under international law. At issue is whether Hawaiians are an indigenous people of the United States or nationals of an occupied state.

The OHA Board of Trustees rescinded the letter, and after a lengthy closed-door session with Crabbe, both sides emerged vowing to move forward despite the dispute. But many Native Hawaiians, during recent hearings with the U.S. Office of the Interior, echoed Crabbe’s concerns that Native Hawaiians are sovereign nationals in an occupied state.

Coinciding with hot issues about Hawaiian sovereignty is a rare open seat in the at-large category of candidates because of the retirement this year of longtime OHA trustee Oswald Stender. Sixteen candidates, including two incumbents, have filed their candidacies for three available at-large seats.

Mililani B. Trask is one of five Big Island candidates running for an at-large seat. Trask, who served one term on the OHA board in the late 1990s, said she is the only neighbor island candidate who ever won an at-large seat. Generally, voters on the much more populous Oahu island secure their local candidates.

Trask of Hilo said she’s running because she’s concerned that millions of dollars belonging to the Native Hawaiian people have been spent over the years promoting sovereignty without first building a consensus in the community about how the government should be structured.

“Besides a paper agency, there hasn’t been any agency to help work out our differences,” Trask said.

She said hearings in Washington, D.C., over the Akaka Bill, and more recently trips by OHA trustees to the mainland to promote Kanaiolowalu, are wasting precious resources while Native Hawaiians live in poverty, sit for generations on waiting lists for homesteads and suffer high rates of drug abuse and incarceration.

“People are concerned because the native trust has been breached,” Trask said. “You can’t establish a government-to-government relationship until you have two governments who can sit at the table together.”

Another Hilo candidate, Lorraine Pualani Shin-Penn, agrees that talk of government-to-government relationships is premature.

“There is no consensus in the Hawaiian community,” Shinn-Penn said. “It has to come basically from the roots.”

“People are becoming more educated and more vocal,” added candidate Keikialoha T. Kekipi of Pahoa. “I think there’s a need to go out there and help facilitate that.”

Lahilahi Desoto-McCollough of Waimea said friends asked her to run because they don’t feel that OHA represents them. Desoto-McCollough said her mother was instrumental in helping create OHA in the 1978 constitutional convention.

“There has been no involvement. There have been a lot of questions and they’re not being answered,” she said. “There’s no involvement from the people and no input from the beneficiaries. … It’s after the fact that they find out … (the OHA board) is not going to listen. It’s just a formality.”

Candidate Alona N. Quartero of Hilo did not respond to telephone messages by press time.

For the first time, the at-large and Oahu fields will be winnowed down in the primary elections, with the top six at-large and the top two on Oahu moving on to the general election. That’s because of a 2013 measure by the Legislature.

“The primary levels the playing field,” noted trustee Peter Apo, the incumbent in the Oahu race.

Four candidates, including the incumbent, have filed for the Oahu seat and two candidates, including the incumbent, have filed for the Maui seat. The other island seats are not open this election year.

While there are residency requirements for candidates seeking the district seats, all voters statewide are permitted to vote in each of the OHA races. Trustees are elected to their seats for four-year terms, and there is no limit on the number of terms a trustee may serve.