It’s been a record-setting five months since the Oahu Burial Council last met, potentially delaying projects such as resorts and infrastructure plans that need approvals from the committee to move forward.

The burial council, one of five in the state, is in charge of making determinations about what to do with Hawaiian burial remains, or iwi, that developers encounter during construction projects. And without determinations about whether remains are to be left in place or removed, developments that require archaeological inventory surveys can’t proceed.

“Not being able to meet means the developer and anybody else with iwi concerns, the community, has no outlet and no venue to express their views and opinions,” said Hinaleimoana Kalu, chair of the Oahu Burial Council. “There is no outlet whereby they are able to seek council guidance. Developers aren’t able to share the latest updates and follow through with guidelines they must follow.”

The council has only met once this year — in January — because Gov. Neil Abercrombie has yet to appoint someone who represents a large landowner or developer to the council. Without the member, the council, which is supposed to meet once a month, lacks a quorum.

Donalyn Dela Cruz, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that Abercrombie was expected to make a decision this week in time for the next scheduled meeting on June 13. She said that it has been hard to find someone who meets the qualifications and is willing to serve.

It’s not just up to the governor’s office. The State Historic Preservation Division is in charge of vetting candidates and making recommendations to the governor. That agency is under fire from the federal government, which is threatening to revoke its certification and withdraw funding, for being slow to hire necessary staff and delays in processing permits.

William Aila, director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees SHPD, also said that it has been difficult to attract landowners and developers.

But members of the burial council are concerned that little has been done to find someone for the seat.

“While I understand that while some people say it’s hard to get landowner representatives, it’s not very clear to us what efforts were made,” said Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, who sits on the Oahu council. “And clearly, to me, if the governor or someone associated with the governor called a large landowner or developer and asked them to serve, I would have a hard time believing that they wouldn’t.”

There have been applicants. Dela Cruz confirmed that names had been sent to the governor’s office, but said who they are and why they may not have been chosen is confidential.

Kalu said that while it wasn’t her job to help fill the seat, she had encouraged people to apply. She said she didn’t know why they hadn’t passed the scrutiny of the governor’s office.

“On the one hand, I understand that processes of checks and balances are necessary for any vetting process,” said Kalu.

She said she realizes the governor doesn’t want people who might create problems. “But at the same time, I know there are people who have submitted their names, put in applications, and they are not making it through the vetting process.”

This is the longest stretch the Oahu Burial Council has gone without meeting in recent years, according to data from SHPD. Two meetings were canceled in 2011 and 2010, but there were no cancellations in 2009 and 2008.

Neighbor island burial councils also have been canceling meetings in the past 18 months, according to SHPD records. Since 2011, eight meetings have been canceled on Maui and seven on the Big Island in part due to quorum issues. This is a sharp rise from previous years, SHPD data shows.

A Move to Consolidate

The Abercrombie administration has been pushing to consolidate the island burial councils into one. Senate Bill 2854, which died in the Legislature this year, sought to address the issue of finding qualified members. The bill also argues that island burial councils have had a hard time attracting large landowner representatives and consolidating them would make it easier to reach a quorum.

The bill noted that Molokai’s burial council hadn’t met since 2008, and that “recently, this has also become a problem for other island burial councils.”

“Maui and Hawaii have canceled nine meetings due to quorum issues and Kauai has lost two regional representatives and is seeking an additional large landowner,” the bill says.

But the legislation was opposed by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Senate Committee on Hawaiian Affairs and members of various island burial councils. Critics saw the consolidation as a way to speed up development.

Edwin L.P. Miranda, a member of the Big Island Burial Council, told legislators that the council had no quorum issues.

“This bill serves only to fast-track projects and not fully address the concerns of our iwi Kupuna, their descendants, our culture, and the reputation of the Island Burial Councils,” Miranda wrote in testimony to legislators.

Some, like Scheuer, wonder if the delay in picking someone for the Oahu council is related to the Abercrombie administration’s political efforts to advance its own agenda of consolidating the councils.

“That this delay in finding a replacement happened simultaneously with the administration’s attempts to consolidate the burial councils is troubling,” said Scheuer.

Abercrombie’s office did not respond to the criticism. But Aila said that the spate of canceled meetings on Oahu wasn’t an aberration.

“For many years we have had trouble with large landowners volunteering staff to sit on the burial council. It takes a lot of time and is very controversial,” he said.

Aila said that the department was pushing for a more liberal interpretation of what constitutes a quorum from the attorney general.

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