The breakthrough ceded land settlement announced by the Abercrombie administration on Wednesday is the brainchild of two Honolulu attorneys with extensive experience in commercial litigation.

Hawaii Attorney General David Louie and Office of Hawaiian Affairs attorney Bill Meheula have other legal experience.

But their background in resolving complicated disputes over money and property is key to crafting the state’s proposed transfer to OHA of 25 acres of Kakaako makai property valued at $200 million.

Indeed, the deal began — as so many legal (and political) settlements do — with a phone call.

“When we had the new administration come in, I called David up and I said, ‘You know, we can go through the details, but I think what you have to find out first is, does this administration really want to settle this — and do you really want to settle it?'” Meheula explained at Wednesday’s Capitol press conference announcing the settlement. “Because if the attorney general doesn’t want to and the governor doesn’t want to, we’re not going to be able to do it.”

Meheula continued: “And he came back and he said, ‘No, I think the governor is really behind it, I think he always has been, and I am. So let’s go to work.'”

Lessons Learned From 2008

Three years ago, the Hawaii Legislature rejected a $200 million settlement proposed by OHA and then-Gov. Linda Lingle.

Lingle, a Republican, blamed the Democratic-controlled body for killing the deal, which involved $13 million cash plus $187 million in state land in Kakaako, Kapolei and the Big Island. There was also a requirement for the state to pay OHA $13 million a year.

However, as the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported at the time, senators said the settlement wasn’t discussed with the Hawaiian community. They urged OHA to reach out to the community and come back with another settlement.

Meheula said lessons were learned from the 2008 experience.

This time, OHA and the state consulted Hawaiians, non-Hawaiians and lawmakers. They also came up with an unsigned “letter of intent” that said the parties had agreed only in principle to a new deal.

Like most deals cut between lawyers, neither side received everything it wanted in the Kakaako settlement. But that’s what compromise is all about.

“The governor believes the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” said Louie.

Gov: ‘My Heart Is Beating Now’

The Kakaako settlement marked another major step by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in his first year in office to support Native Hawaiian rights.

In July, he signed landmark legislation in a ceremony at Washington Place recognizing Hawaiians as the indigenous population and establishing a process to help them form a government.

Standing with him that day was OHA Chair Colette Machado, whose friendship with the governor was instrumental in the Kakaako settlement.

Both leaders are known for their tendency to become emotional at big moments. Wednesday was no exception.

“I just said to Colette how my heart is beating right now, we’re so happy to be here together,” the governor said at the beginning of the press conference.

Abercrombie credited Meheula and Louie for putting the “nuts and bolts” of the settlement together. But he made it clear that it was a shared vision.

“Colette and I thought this was now the proper time to put that forward,” he said. “I guess it’s no secret she’s someone that I love and respect.”

Machado, who in a letter to Abercrombie in January urged the governor to “fulfill the State’s obligation to pay the Office of Hawaiian Affairs … for the State’s past use of ceded lands for airports, hospitals and public housing,” was clearly moved by the settlement proposal.

“I want to begin with a humble heart and (for a) grateful people that we have been able to receive this,” she said, later adding, “With a grateful heart I cannot express to you what this means to the host culture.”

Abercrombie, in introducing Meheula, underscored how other relationship were critical to the Kakaako deal.

“When I saw Bill Meheula today, again, my heart was beating pretty fast,” he said. “I was thinking about how long we’ve known one another and your commitment and dedication to the Hawaiian people.”

The governor also heaped praise on Louie.

“For you to have made this commitment to public service at this time in your life … particularly in this regard … demonstrates what Hawaii is all about,” he said.

At the end of the press conference the two executives and the two lawyers put their hands together for a photo op. The Kakaako settlement is now in the hands of the 2012 Legislature, which opens Jan. 18.

About the Author