The new head of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is facing mounting opposition to her leadership that could derail her confirmation by the Senate next year.

Jobie Masagatani was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in May to lead the agency that manages 200,000 acres of land reserved for Native Hawaiians. The land is set aside for such purposes as developing homestead plots, agricultural projects and social and economic programs.

She’s only been on the job for three months, but statewide homestead leaders, who represent 28 of 32 Hawaiian communities, have already voted unanimously to oppose her confirmation. She currently is serving on an interim basis until the Senate has a chance to consider her in the upcoming legislative session.

“It’s extraordinary, unprecedented, never been done before,” said Robin Danner, president of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, a nonprofit policy organization, of the vote against Masagatani. “It’s stunning actually.”

Danner is also critical of Masagatani’s leadership.

The vote against the DHHL director came during the this month’s annual statewide convention of the powerful Sovereign Councils of the Hawaiian Homelands Assembly (SCHHA). The organization represents homestead communities throughout Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai and the Big Island.

In a statement, Kamaki Kanahele, chairman of SCHHA, said it was “with regret, but with determination and great deliberation” that the body voted to oppose Masagatani’s confirmation.

Kanahele criticized the DHHL head for diluting the powers of homestead associations and threatening the communities’ economic self-sufficiency.

“In just the short time since taking the helm of the Hawaiian Homes Commission this year, she has put forward multiple anti-homestead association proposals or created barriers to homestead self determination initiatives, including attempts to remove or thwart homestead associations from economic development projects on our own lands,” Kanahele said in the statement. “The philosophy shown right at the beginning by this Interim Director, threatens to bring irreparable harm to the gains our homestead associations have been making in achieving economic self-sufficiency on the ground in our communities.”

Homestead leaders have directed Kanahele to meet with the governor, the Hawaiian Homes Commission and members of the Senate during the next several months, according to a press release.

Masagatani is not only facing opposition from homestead leaders. There are also signs that members of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, which oversees DHHL, are unhappy with her leadership. The DHHL director also chairs the commission.

“For me, right now I’m very disappointed at who the chairman is aligning with,” said Michael Kahikina, a member of the commission. “And it’s not with the beneficiaries.”

He said that instead of serving Native Hawaiians, who are supposed to be the ones benefiting from the land trust, Masagatani was choosing instead to serve the interests of the state.

Masagatani did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked about SCHHA’s criticism of Masagatani, Abercrombie spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said in a statement, “The governor is confident in his selection of Ms. Masagatani as his appointee to the Director of DHHL and will support her as she seeks Senate confirmation.”

A Pocket of Support

Masagatani does have her supporters.

A small hui called Auamo I Na Alaka’i (aka AINA) issued a press release on Aug. 19 stating that the director had exceeded homestead leadership expectations. The press release includes charts and graphs the group says shows positive reaction to Masagatani’s nascent leadership.

AINA’s president, Paul Richards, told Civil Beat that those surveyed were homestead leaders like himself. The survey was conducted in part as a response to “negative noise going around” at a DHHL leadership conference in June, when Masagatani had only been on the job a short while.

“This is an informal assessment,” he said of the AINA survey. “We just wanted a fast snapshot.”

AINA will conduct a survey regarding Masagatani’s performance this fall, but Richards said his group believes the director “as of right now is handling everything the way the homesteads expected.”

Richards, a former SCHAA director, said AINA does not have a formal membership or charge dues like SCHAA.

A Hidden Budget, and Funding Woes

Disgruntlement with Masagatani’s leadership has in part stemmed from issues of transparency.

In June, Masagatani refused to publicly disclose DHHL’s budget, prompting the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement to send a letter to Abercrombie asking him to release the information.

As a state agency, DHHL’s budget is public information.

Kahikina said he wouldn’t speak to why she hadn’t released the budget that he along with other commissioners approved. But he said, “more transparency I think would be good.”

The budget issue was cited as one of the reasons for SCHAA’s vote against Masagatani.

“SCHHA leaders are well-informed, and we know that the trust is in financial trouble, something that requires unity with DHHL, not the divisive actions we’ve seen so far, including the failure of the Interim Director to release to the public and beneficiaries, her operating budget to spend $50 million of our limited trust fund balances to pay for state government employees,” Kanahele said in a statement.

DHHL’s budget and use of funds has been the subject of controversy for years and the refusal of Masagatani to release the budget has stoked concerns.

Under former Gov. Linda Lingle, the department was stripped of state general fund revenue to save money, even though DHHL has to pay the salaries of more than 100 state employees. For years, the department has been relying on money it gets from leasing out its land to commercial developers, such as Wal-Mart. For the past 18 years, it has also received $30 million a year from a $600 million court settlement for claims against the state for misusing Hawaiian home lands.

But that settlement is going to run out in 2014.

The lack of state funding for DHHL has angered Native Hawaiians who say that DHHL money should be going to help Native Hawaiians, not support state workers.

DHHL Turnover

Abercrombie has a record of strong support for Native Hawaiians, and he is known to become emotional talking about his experience with and respect for the indigenous population.

While in Congress, then-U.S. Rep. Abercrombie introduced the Akaka bill on Native Hawaiian federal recognition. As governor, he was instrumental in securing the legislative deal that gave the Office of Hawaiian Affairs land in Kakaako Makai valued at $200 million in order to settle past-due ceded-land claims.

But Abercrombie has also experienced heavy turnover among Cabinet and staff appointees. Masagatani is the second DHHL director in less than two years, replacing Alapaki Nahale-a in May. Under Abercrombie, there have also been two deputy directors of DHHL — Bobby Hall and current deputy Michelle Kauhane.

Before coming to DHHL, Masagatani was special assistant to OHA’s CEO. A former deputy DHHL director (1995-2002), she has also worked with the Queen’s Health Systems on Native Hawaiian health and as a land investment analyst for Kamehameha Schools.

Congressional Mandate

The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, approved by Congress in the early 1920s, established a nine-member commission, which is appointed by the governor with the consent of the state Senate. The DDHL director serves as commission chair.

DHHL, created by the state in 1960, is responsible for administering more than 200,000 acres of state land for qualified beneficiaries — Hawaiians with at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood. The land is on all the major islands, with over half located on the Big Island. Much of it is located in arid regions.

The homestead program has had mixed success in placing beneficiaries on land. As of August 2011, there were 9,875 homestead leases: 85 percent residential, 11 percent agricultural and 4 percent pastoral. Applications for homestead land have increased from 31,318 in 2000 to 40,084 in 2009.

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