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To some residents of Makiki, Aaron Mahi is a community leader due to his role as a pastor at the Community of Christ church.
To his fans, he’s a skilled musician, a former conductor of the Royal Hawaiian Band for more than two decades and a slack-key guitar performer who still tours the mainland.
But since January, Mahi has been serving in a very different role: as an interim member of the state Land Use Commission, which makes decisions about development that could have repercussions for generations. Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Mahi to the post, and a Senate panel is scheduled to meet Friday to vote on whether to confirm Mahi as a commissioner.
Although a musician at heart, the 60-year-old from Kalihi was on the Oahu Burial Council between 2002 and 2013 where he identified historic interment sites and working with developers and families to resolve conflicts over ancestral remains.
Mahi said the experience made him acutely aware of the importance of land-use decisions. Classic Hawaiian music also took on another meaning for Mahi as he came to more deeply appreciate the cultural wisdom and knowledge imparted by the lyrics he sings.
“What are we doing about the integrity of our land?” he wonders. For him, the answer, in many cases, is: Not enough.
Hawaii established the state Land Use Commission more than 50 years ago. The commission — the first statewide zoning board in the nation — was created to help control development and preserve the islands’ limited farmland and conservation land. The board is made up of nine members who represent all the counties, and at least one person is supposed to have knowledge of Hawaiian cultural practices.
Over the years, the composition of the commission has been sharply criticized, with some saying that it has been — and, in some ways, still is — dominated by pro-development interests.
“Historically, usually the membership has been very skewed toward developers or members of the construction trade industry,” said Robert Harris, director of the environmental group Sierra Club, which has sued to overturn the commission’s decisions approving residential developments known as Koa Ridge and Hoopili.
Harris declined to comment on the current make-up of the board. But Sen. Clayton Hee, a co-plaintiff with the Sierra Club, argued that the commission’s pro-development composition persists today and is reflected in its decisions.
“The Land Use Commission by design was set up to protect agricultural lands and if you look at the decisions of the Land Use Commission, very few have protected agricultural lands,” he said.
Concerns about the commission’s membership have prompted lawmakers over the years to introduce bills to prevent conflicts of interest and require more balance on the board.
This year, House Water and Land Committee Chairwoman Cindy Evans introduced bills requiring stricter rules governing conflicts of interest and encouraging more gender diversity on the commission, as well as other boards. Neither proposal gained any traction.
The commission is governed by the same conflict of interest rules that apply to other state boards, and members are required to recuse themselves if they would benefit financially from a specific transaction. But Evans thinks commissioners should also recuse themselves if they are voting on cases that involve their previous employers or clients.
“Even if the reality may be that they’re not employed by you right then, why wouldn’t you recuse yourself?” said Evans, adding that the commissioners should avoid the appearance of a conflict. “My question has always been, it’s nice to have an expertise but does it create a conflict?”
Daniel Orodenker, executive director of the state Land Use Commission, said that the perception that the agency is filled with developers is a mischaracterization.
“There are no developers on the commission, there are business people,” he said.
The majority of sitting commissioners have worked in industries related to land development. They include Kyle Chock, former director of the construction industry advocacy group Pacific Resource Partnership; Carol Torigoe, an architect; Dennis Esaki, an engineer and head of a Kauai-based land surveying company; Chad McDonald, vice-president of the construction management firm Mitsunaga & Associates; and Lance Inouye, CEO of a general contracting company.
Orodenker downplayed the composition of the commission, suggesting that drawing conclusions about its decisions based on its membership unfairly diminishes the vigorous, quasi-judicial process that commissioners must go through in order to make their decisions.
“There are strict statutory guidelines about when it’s appropriate to make a change and when it’s not,” Orodenker said. “The decisions are not based on the commissioners’ inclinations; they have to be founded in the law and in the statutes.”
Professor David Callies, an expert on local land use at the University of Hawaii, said that adding a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner to the commission wouldn’t make much of a difference because the commission is already required by law to consider Native Hawaiian culture and traditions.
“The truth of the matter is those issues get raised anyway in the hearings,” he said.
But Hee disagrees. The longtime senator said Mahi’s knowledge of the Hawaiian language gives him a distinct perspective that might not be available to someone who has simply studied the culture.
“It is very important and helpful for a commissioner to understand the language because embedded in the language are the thought processes of Hawaiian culture,” Hee said. The word aina, for example, is translated into English as land; but in Hawaiian, “aina means much more than land; it’s the commodity that sustains us, that feeds us, that keeps us alive.”
Mahi said if he’s confirmed, he doesn’t expect to change how anything is done on the commission. But he’s looking forward to being a voice for sharing Hawaiian cultural knowledge, which he thinks is more important than many people realize.
“Somebody gotta be in there to say, ‘Remember this? Remember this? And when this is pau, understand what we’re going to have to do,'” Mahi said.
Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ahofschneider.