UPDATED 11/17/10 3 p.m.

In case there was ever any doubt, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is a government agency and its employees are public, according to an opinion by the state Office of Information Practices (OIP).

OHA had stalled Civil Beat’s public records request for the names, salaries and positions of its employees. The agency basically claimed its employees were not “public employees” because the bulk of its revenue comes from ceded lands, which it says are not “public funds.”

OHA asked the state to answer the question about whether its employees should be considered public workers since some of “their salaries are totally funded by ‘non-public’ trust funds.” The agency’s employees all receive state benefits, including participation in retirement and health plans.

Cathy Takase, OIP’s acting director, made clear in a Nov. 3 opinion: “OHA is a government agency, its employees are ’employees of the agency’ whose salary information is thus subject to disclosure under HRS 92F-12.”

Following Takase’s opinion, OHA said Tuesday that it will fulfill our request and provide the information for its 145 employees.

Civil Beat has been requesting and publishing the names, salaries and positions of public employees as part of an examination of public spending and in an effort to make government more transparent.

You can read articles about state salaries, University of Hawaii salaries, Department of Education salaries, Hawaii State Judiciary salaries, pay at Hawaii Health Systems Corp., the state’s public hospital system, and pay at the Legislature.

Takase issued a two-page opinion regarding OHA saying,

“The (state’s Uniform Information Practices Act) requires an agency to disclose the names, titles and salaries for all present or former officers or employees of the agency … OHA asks for guidance in light of OHA’s unique funding, which results in its employees’ salaries being paid either fully or primarily with funds derived from the public land trust … A plain reading of HRS 92F-12, provides no basis to differentiate among various agency employees based upon whether or not their salaries are paid by their employing agency from general funds.”

Takase went on to say: “The only question here, thus, is whether the term ’employees of the agency’ excludes employees whose salaries may be paid with monies other than those that flow directly from state coffers.”

OIP cited the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. as an example of a state agency that “operates and pays personnel with funds that may also arguably be considered not ‘public funds.'”

While the bulk of OHA’s money comes from revenues from ceded lands, it also gets funding from the state’s general fund and other funding from the federal government.

OHA was created in 1978 “to address the needs of the aboriginal class of people of Hawaii.” By state law, 20 percent of all “income and proceeds” derived from the public land trust — 1.2 million acres of ceded land held in trust for the benefit of Native Hawaiians — are to be paid annually to OHA. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs received approximately $15.1 million in ceded lands revenue from the state this year. 1

OIP’s Takase said there isn’t “any indication that out Legislature intended to make a distinction among government agency employees based upon an agency’s source of funding for its payroll.”

She concluded her opinion saying, “OIP believes that the phrase ’employees of the agency’ is not ambiguous, and that its common and ordinary meaning includes all (emphasis added by OIP) individuals employed by the agency without regard to what funds are used to pay their salaries. This meaning is consistent with the purposes and policies of the (Uniform Information Practices Act). See HRS 92F-2.”

  1. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs administers all ceded land in the public lands trust. OHA is a beneficiary of 20 percent of any revenue from ceded lands held in the public lands trust.

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