The view from Clyde Namuo’s fifth floor office at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is not a terribly good one: mostly bulky warehouses and other bland buildings in Kakaako.
Only a few blocks makai from OHA’s offices, however, are about 25 acres of state land that the Abercrombie administration says is worth $200 million — prime, ocean-front property with a sweeping views in most directions.
If the Hawaii Legislature next year approves a proposal crafted this fall by the governor and OHA, the agency would own that land and possibly relocate its headquarters there. It would also settle a $200 million tab owed by the state to OHA for ceded-land revenues.
For Namuo, 60, who stepped down Friday after 10 years as OHA’s administrator, the Kakaako deal would represent a milestone in the long history of Hawaiians.
“It provides the economic engine that right now OHA does not have,” he said.
OHA was created by the state’s 1978 Constitutional Convention. As a semi-autonomous state agency, it’s entitled to a portion of the revenue that comes from the use of ceded lands, 1.8 million acres of former Hawaiian monarchy land.
Ceded lands are actually held by others — the state and federal governments and the Hawaiian Home Lands trust — and include major properties like airports, harbors and the University of Hawaii. With the exception of a few properties, such as Oahu’s Waimea Valley, OHA doesn’t own much land itself.
OHA does get $15 million a year in ceded-land revenue, however. It also receives $2.4 million from the Legislature and has investments valued at about $21 million. (OHA policy permits it to invest 5 percent of its earnings averaged over three years.)
Though the Kakaako parcels would still be under the jurisdiction of the state’s Hawaii Community Development Authority, OHA would own the parcels and benefit from any revenue that comes from the land and have a stake in future development.
“Stocks and bonds do not provide adequate resources to a very needy community,” said Namuo.
Providing resources to Native Hawaiians is OHA’s core mission. Though it is sometimes confused with the state’s Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (unlike DHHL, recipients are not required to have 50 percent Hawaiian ancestry) and the the alii trusts, OHA has a different kuleana, one mandated by the Hawaii Constitution:
Unlike the Bishop Estate, the Queen Emma Foundation, the Queen Liliuokalani Trust, the Lunalilo Trust and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands — with their specific, respective purposes of education, medical care, children’s welfare, kūpuna care and homesteading — OHA has a much broader mandate. Its purpose is to provide the opportunity for a better life and future for all Hawaiians.
That opportunity comes through grants and programs offered to Hawaiians by OHA. As explained in OHA’s 2010-2016 Strategic Plan, OHA’s roles include asset management, legal and political advocacy, research, perpetuation of history and culture and improvement of the health, education, income and housing of Hawaiians.
All that takes money. Hence, the importance of the Kakaako deal.
Though OHA has its detractors — notably, those who seek full independence from the U.S. and those who say Hawaiian entitlements are discriminatory — OHA is the single-most important organization representing the roughly 280,000 Hawaiians in Hawaii and nearly as many on the mainland.
But OHA’s years have been rocky, marked by factionalism and infighting between trustees. The acrimony included major issues, like OHA policy and strategy, but also far more manini (small kine fish) matters.
Current Chair Colette Machado, who was first elected a trustee in 1996, remembers being told early in her tenure by the then-chair that she had until 4 p.m. to move out of her office into a smaller one. The chair wanted the bigger room.
“We knew how it felt to go into Siberia when we had disagreements with the current chair,” said Machado, who added, “It was tumultuous politics, tit for tat, blocking all your projects.”
Those chairs included powerful personalities such as Clayton Hee, now a state senator, and Rowena Akana and Haunani Apoliona, who are still trustees. Machado said Hee’s tenure was particularly politically charged, probably owing to his background as a legislator.
“That type of politics played well — how you align your votes, how you go in and you block vote,” said Machado. “It’s very different now. People are very independent. But we do have common knowledge on the broader issues that affect Native Hawaiians. I feel so enlightened now that we are not tied down to so-called party politics.”
Not that the nine-member elected board of trustees agrees on everything, even today.
Earlier this month it was unable to muster the six votes necessary to replace Maui Trustee Boyd Mossman, who stepped down Nov. 1 to go to work for the Mormon Church.
The decision on who will join the board is now in the hands of Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who has promised to pick a Maui trustee who won’t seek re-election next year.
“I know the governor won’t disgrace us by picking a non-Hawaiian,” said Machado, noting that OHA has only one non-Hawaiian trustee. (He was appointed under Gov. Ben Cayetano to fill a vacancy.) Though non-Hawaiians can run for OHA, thanks to the Rice v. Cayetano decision in 2000, only one has been elected.1
Despite the inability to pick a new trustee, Machado, 61, says OHA today is very different than the agency she went to work for 15 years ago. She credits Apoliona and Namuo, who worked together as chair and CEO for the better part of a decade. A year ago Machado succeeded Apoliona, who is a close ally.
Though OHA staff are neither civil servants nor unionized, Namuo implemented major housekeeping, like drawing up job descriptions, controlling spending and clarifying how grants are awarded. This year, OHA has a one-time incentive program to award bonuses to employees who perform well.
“We are much, much more orderly than we were when I started,” said Namuo, who said he can’t recall the last time a board meeting erupted into shouting.
More critically, the perception of OHA in the community has begun to change.
“I go shopping at Costco and people come up to me, total strangers, and say OHA is doing a really good job,” said Namuo. “They think of me as public property. It’s never to yell at me or say, ‘There you folks go again.'”
Machado said OHA’s board has been helped by the presence of current trustees like Oswald Stender, Peter Apo and Robert Lindsey and former trustees like Mossman and Walter Heen — respected leaders with diverse professional backgrounds.
“We are able to attract these kinds of individuals that have an acumen of being fair and reasonable,” said Machado.
An example of just how much OHA has changed is personified by Machado herself. The longtime Molokai activist helped organize Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, which led the fight to stop the bombing of the uninhabited island. Initially, Machado actually opposed OHA.
Not everyone today is happy with OHA, nor with the proposed Kakaako deal.
At a series of public meetings conducted throughout the state, Namuo and OHA attorney Bill Meheula, an architect of the agreement, patiently listened to objections to the plan.
“At community meetings we still hear some of the frustration over the period when there was chaos here,” said Namuo. “Those are folks who remember how OHA used to be. They are not really observing how it is now.”
Machado identified three groups OHA needs to work with to secure the $200 million settlement: Hawaiian sovereigntists, many of whom think OHA has sold Hawaiians out to the state and federal governments; Kakaako community groups including surfers and fishermen — the same folks who killed Alexander & Baldwin’s plans to develop Kakaako makai a few years back; and the Legislature, which includes former OHA trustees like Hee and Sen. Malama Solomon.
But Namuo and Machado hope that increased outreach efforts will help mitigate concerns over Kakaako.
After the bill is submitted as part of the governor’s legislative package, OHA will conduct another round of community hearings. There’s talk as well of holding a call-in TV show.
At the Legislature, the bill will first go to the Hawaiian Affairs committees in the House and Senate, where Namuo and Machado feel it will receive full consideration. Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, the majority leader, is chair of the committee; he attended the announcement of the Kakaako deal, and the area is in his district.
The more difficult part of the legislative process will come in April, said Namuo, when budget committees do their final work and conference committees convene. Machado said the biggest question lawmakers have is what, exactly, will be done with the Kakaako parcels — something Machado stresses is really in the hands of HCDA.
Namuo, meanwhile, says some lawmakers feel they weren’t properly briefed on the Kakaako proposal before the administration made the public announcement in November.
“We are going to get beat up over there, that’s just the nature of the Ledge,” said Machado.
“It just takes a few phone calls to key legislators, and then things get stalled,” said Namuo, who, like Machado, remains hopeful the deal will go through this time and not fall apart as did a similar proposal in 2008.
“For me, hey, skies the limit,” she said. “Forget what happened in the past and let’s move ahead. We cannot go another generation of us disagreeing.”