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Turmoil continued Thursday during meetings at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which coincidentally were held on Groundhog Day.
Like the Bill Murray movie of the same name, OHA and its Native Hawaiian beneficiaries seem to keep returning to a familiar routine as the leadership revolves at an agency described by many as dysfunctional.
On Thursday, a majority of Board of Trustees members voted to dismiss Rowena Akana as chairwoman.
The vote was 5-1, with three trustees abstaining. Akana was the lone “no” vote, with Lei Ahu Isa, Peter Apo, Colette Machado, Dan Ahuna and Robert Lindsey Jr. voting to remove her.
As vice chair, Ahu Isa automatically replaced Akana and will serve until the board reconvenes later this month to vote on a permanent chair.
Akana had replaced Lindsey as chair Dec. 8, one month after Kelii Akina altered the board power structure by defeating Trustee Haunani Apoliona in the general election. Akana then formed a new majority with Akina, Ahu Isa and trustees Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey and John Waihee IV.
Akana did not go quietly Thursday.
She urged the board to call for a forensic audit of OHA, one that she said could uncover fiscal mismanagement and waste, fraud and abuse that could potentially be used in court.
She criticized Apoliona, who testified in favor of Akana’s removal, by saying, “Evidently, you don’t know you lost the election.”
The remark was met by loud boos and cries of “ugly!” from some in the boardroom audience.
Akana also said to Apo, “How dare you judge me. I have not committed a crime.”
Akana was referring to recent news reports that OHA settled a sexual harassment case against Apo for $50,000. Apo did not respond to Akana’s accusation, but has previously cautioned people to not jump to conclusions about the matter.
And, Akana cited scripture when she told the OHA board of a dream she had the night before, one that involved “heated discussion” with Ahu Isa.
She said she awoke in the morning to read Ezekial 3, which tells of God telling Ezekial to speak frankly to the people of Israel even if they were “hardened” and did not want to listen.
“So I leave you with that,” said Akana, her eyes welling with tears. “The lord is with us today and he is in this room.”
And then came the vote to remove her.
Afterwards, Ahu Isa released this statement: “My main goal is to bring stability to the OHA Board and our agency. OHA’s greatest asset is our employees, and we need to provide a healthy work environment for them so they can continue to meet the needs of our beneficiaries.”
Before the special meeting to reorganize the OHA board, Akana held a meeting to discuss a financial audit and management review of the agency. Only a handful of trustees attended. Akana held the meeting anyway, without the required quorum.
It was at that meeting that Ahuna indicated what was to come later. He said five of the trustees were boycotting the meeting because of their objections to Akana’s leadership.
“She has caused nothing but turmoil in this organization since being elected chair,” he said. “And just within the last 48 hours she has gone on a spree personally attacking other trustees and she unilaterally filed a lawsuit yesterday on behalf of OHA that will likely end up being found frivolous.”
It was for those reasons, Ahuna said, that a new majority wanted to boot Akana from leadership.
Akana denied that she filed a lawsuit, instead describing her action as seeking “a declaratory judgment” on whether a new three-year contract for OHA CEO Kamanao’pono Crabbe is still valid.
Last month, trustees under Akana voted to try to buy out the remainder of Crabbe’s $450,000 contract because they are not satisfied with his performance.
It’s not clear how Crabbe’s employment will be affected by the new leadership. He and trustees have been meeting in executive session in an attempt to settle the matter.
But even some supporters of Akana have testified that Crabbe has been good for OHA. An online petition with hundreds of signatures has called for his being retained and Akana being removed as chair.
It’s not clear whether Akana and call for a forensic audit or Akina’s call for an independent one will be heeded. But the agency will soon be examined by the state auditor, something already required by statute, and Crabbe told the board that his staff holds itself to “high standards and accountability.”
Meanwhile, the State Procurement Office has launched an inquiry into OHA contracts. Late last month it requested a log of all professional services contract awards for the past three years.
One thing about OHA that seems certain, however, is that a lot of people want the trustees to put aside their differences in order to work for the benefit of all Hawaiians.
That was the consistent message in much of the public testimony before the board, on Thursday and at previous meetings.
“Watching this is making people sick and causing a loss of trust in this organization,” said Tiare Lawrence, who supported the board reorganization. “Elect someone who will lead.”