Alan Downer sat in his office at the State Historic Preservation Division last month looking perplexed. He had been on the job as the new administrator of SHPD for less than two weeks and a state legislator had already filed a formal public records request for him to deal with.

“I’m thinking, ‘You’re a legislator. Why don’t you just ask (me)?'” he recalled during a recent interview.

Why the lawmaker felt the need to “up the ante like that” with an official request under Hawaii’s Uniform Information Practices Act, as opposed to simply calling him and asking for the information, escaped him. He was happy to share the information.

“We are doing the people’s business and people have every right to know what we are doing,” said Downer. “What we do here is for the people. It’s not for me or the people of this office. It’s for the people of Hawaii.”

But SHPD, which has faced numerous controversies over land development and the preservation of Native Hawaiian cultural artifacts in recent years, has been under fire from both federal officials and the public for its lack of transparency — likely prompting the formal records request.

Changing the agency’s opaque work culture is just one of the obstacles Downer faces as the new leader of the state agency in charge of protecting Hawaii’s cultural and historical resources.

Federal and state officials are hoping that Downer, who spent the last 27 years working for the Navajo Nation, will help mend the agency’s relationships with the public, shore up its internal operations and, most importantly, lead the agency out of the cross-hairs of the National Park Service.

The park service slapped the agency with a “corrective action plan” in 2010, threatening to withdraw SHPD’s federal certification and funding if it didn’t make major improvements. But SHPD satisfied just over one-fifth of the criteria by June of last year, prompting the resignation of former SHPD administrator, Pua Aiu.

Downer, who filled Aiu’s empty position at the beginning of December, only has until the end of April to make the improvements to satisfy the corrective action plan or the agency will face decertification.

“I feel that pressure, but I think we can do it,” said Downer. “I’m confident we will do it.”

Those who know him say Downer’s extensive experience in cultural and historic fields, understanding of federal and state preservation laws and unflappable personality will serve him well.

Downer beat out 30 other candidates, said Esther Kiaaina, deputy director of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees SHPD.

“He just has a wonderful ano (essence) about him,” she said. “Although he is not native, I believe he has been impacted by the Navajo culture and that his style blends well with what we in Hawaii are used to.”

From East to West

Downer grew up in New Jersey, the son of a Princeton University drama professor who specialized in Shakespeare. From a young age, he knew he wanted to study archaeology. He attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, graduating with a degree in geology. He later received his master’s in anthropological archeology and his Ph.D. in applied anthropology from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

In the early 1980s, Downer worked as a senior archeologist for the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for the western United States, where his caseload included Hawaii projects on Ford Island and Kahoolawe.

In 1986, he was hired to establish the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department, the first such tribal history agency in the country. At the start, he was alone on that job. But over time he built up the office, which eventually grew to more than 70 employees.

A Steadying Presence

Downer is new to Hawaii, having only visited once before moving here, and that was for his interview for the SHPD job.

“I’m a real greenhorn,” he acknowledged. “I’m really new at this here. I’m just beginning the learning process about Hawaii.”

But those who have worked with him on cultural and historic preservation over the years say that his background with the Navajo Nation allowed him to forge a reputation as a strong advocate for the Indian tribe. They expect that experience to serve him well.

Edward Halealoha Ayau, who also applied for the job and who currently serves as a supervisor at the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, has known Downer for 23 years thanks to their mutual involvement in the repatriation of native artifacts to their lineal descendants or cultural tribes.

Some forums that they attended grew very heated, Ayau recalled, but Downer always remained evenhanded and in control.

He has the “ability to keep people calm, focused and progressing forward,” said Ayau. “That’s the mana that he brings to the table. He keeps everyone from losing focus.”

Still, most agree that Downer has his work cut out for him. “He’s stepping into a hornet’s nest. So better him than me,” joked Ayau.

SHPD has a history of allowing construction projects to move forward in violation of the state’s own cultural and historic preservation laws, as is clear from Hawaii Supreme Court rulings involving the Honolulu rail project and Kawaiahao Church.

SHPD has also struggled to process permits for projects in a timely way, digitize records and complete statewide inventories of important cultural and historic sites.

But Downer says he has little interest in trying to figure out what went wrong in the past.

“We are where we are and we have to deal with it,” he said. “Doing a forensic analysis of how things got his way — I just think it’s not productive.”

1. Ano meaning essence or spirit in Hawaiian.
2. Mana meaning spirit in Hawaiian.

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