Under the most grim of circumstances, Aikau family members didn’t shutter their windows and hide inside their Pauoa family compound. They didn’t cover their faces and run past reporters. They set up some tables and chairs in the yard, brought out some food, and welcomed visitors, including journalists, as a way to process their collective grief.

One of their own, Gerald, allegedly murdered his 7-year-old son, Reef, inside that compound, then hanged himself from a nearby tree. This local family might be best known for another calamity in their lives, when Eddie Aikau, an iconic surfer and heroic lifeguard, died in the late 1970s trying to save the crew of the capsized Hokulea. Gerald was Eddie’s nephew.

The Aikaus commonly appear in media stories of all types in Hawaii, usually with a fawning reference to Eddie, linked to the international surfing competition commemorating him. Think about how easy public discourse would be when journalists want to talk to you about your kin’s amazing accomplishments, like that, versus how difficult it would be now to discuss what’s on the minds of the Aikaus.

Quiksilver’s 2016 Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational banners on display at Waimea Bay.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

This column is not about the details of the crime, or the situation of the tragedy, or any family members in particular. It is about how this local clan responded to a personal and private crisis by opening up and letting us in, on the same day U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions clammed shut and couldn’t “recall” many matters of public business, including secretive meetings with a Russian operative.

Those who value transparency in society could look wistfully at this Aikau case, as an exemplar of democratic ideals. Unlike elected or appointed public officials, the Aikaus had no obligation whatsoever to talk to local media. They did not need to acknowledge that Gerald was going through a divorce, had attended drug rehab, and had various other “legal,” “mental” and “family issues,” or provide the many specific details they did about what happened.

They easily could have stayed out of public view for a few weeks and rebuffed any attempts by media members to contact them. Who would have criticized them for that? Instead, they let journalists into their home, offered a press conference and answered many tough questions in a time of intense bereavement.

Now let us please contrast the Aikaus’ information-circulating attitude with that of many of our local public officials. Never forget, these are the people we hire and supply to do our business for us at enormous collective expense. They do have a specific and legal mandate to provide information and talk about public business and respond to our questions about it. But they often don’t.

In addition to cases I’ve already documented recently, reader Choon James noted in a comment last week that such dereliction of duty pervades even into our local Parks and Recreation Department.

She pointed to the recent Civil Beat investigation of local parks, by Courtney Teague and Natanya Friedheim, and spotted that the spokesman we all employ to publicly communicate about the department – Nathan Serota – declined to return phone calls from those reporters and answer questions (that’s his primary job!), except via email. This approach gave him time to carefully craft such jargony and milquetoast responses as: “A large, concerted effort is made to evenly prioritize where our CIP and maintenance (funding) is spent.” You, dear readers, are paying handsomely for this kind of service.

Forget about your twice-elected mayor, Kirk Caldwell, providing any further information about this, either. The reporters only could reach “a spokesman” for the public official, who ultimately oversees this parks and recreation department. The unnamed person relayed that the mayor would not have a comment about spending priorities within the department, which aligns with his court-challenged resistance to talk about how he spends all of your local taxes.

Similar examples of public servants serving themselves, or their bosses – not you! – pollute our public discourse.

Just in the past few months:

  • A top public employee in Maui called out a group of grafters in the Department of Public Works, only to be fired, she says, for her whistleblowing. According to Nelson Daranciang’s recent reporting in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, these allegations by Lesli Lyn Otani include rampant misuse of public funds, such as fixing personal vehicles on county time with parts purchased on a county credit card. They also include reports of other employees taking free vacation days, and outfitting a base yard with a commercial-grade kitchen, and giving away valuable county equipment, and so on. When asked about these claims, all Maui County spokesman Rod Antone would say about them is no comment. To which, I ask, is Antone a spokesman for the people who paid for all of this, or the grafters?
  • Pesticides are a contentious issue, with disagreements between environmentalists and large agricultural companies on the islands, and the many people in between. Legislators, though, are elected to deal with these types of tough issues (otherwise, why would we need them?). Journalists, as representatives of the public, wanted to know what elected officials think about these issues. Your public servants – including House Speaker Joe Souki, Rep. Sylvia Luke and Sens. Jill Tokuda and Rosalyn Baker – once again, chose the “no comment” route, according to a report by Civil Beat’s Anita Hofschneider, keeping every voter in the dark about how they think and legislate. In other words, despite their election to serve you, they won’t even talk to you about how they conduct public business for you.
  • Domestic violence cases in Hawaii are rising rapidly, but the HPD has failed to keep up in many significant ways, according to a report by the Honolulu Office of the City Auditor. When contacted by Civil Beat about this public report, various HPD officials declined to comment. All we could learn about their response was that Honolulu Managing Director Roy Amemiya wrote “in a letter” that the city is “committed to improving the process to bring justice to the victims.” Doesn’t that make you feel so much more confident that your tax-funded city employees are being responsive in handling this surging societal scourge?

Now think again about the Aikaus, who had no explicit obligation to talk to the press about their private family matters, especially in such a traumatic situation. They are not public officials. They were not elected or appointed to some tax-funded position. Yet they opened up and talked about what was happening.

Think about it; that’s for us folks out in the public, not them. Instead of people around the state (and world) wondering about, or guessing about, what was going on here, they could find out and know as much as they wanted to know, allowing the community gathering around the Aikaus to process these events, comprehend them and reach for catharsis.

Eddie Aikau was an inspiration to the people of Hawaii for his courageousness, openness and community-minded approach to life. The mantra attributed to him, “Eddie Would Go,” motivates and emboldens people of all sorts in all kinds of activities. In that respect, his family contributes to the waterman’s legacy through their transparency about the recent tragedy in their lives.

In the spirit of the “Eddie Would …” variations, peddled around the island, offering encouragement in all sorts of contexts, maybe we should now propose to public officials the idea that “Eddie Would Talk.”

They clearly need some kind of strong push in that direction. They clearly need some kind of a role model, and this sort of leadership is not coming from within the current ranks of public servants.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.