Voter turnout in Hawaii is typically abysmal, especially races for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
But two high-profile candidates with lots of government experience running next year for seats on the OHA Board of Trustees are likely to brighten the spotlight on an agency often mired in controversy since its creation in 1978.
OHA’s primary mission is helping the indigenous people of the islands, who suffer disproportionately from health issues and are overrepresented in jails and prisons. Non-Hawaiians not only can serve as trustees and vote in its elections, they also help pay for it with their tax dollars.
William Aila Jr. and Esther Kiaaina are well-known Native Hawaiians who have spent years working for the state and federal governments, each with an emphasis on conservation and cultural rights. They announced their candidacies in a joint press release Monday.
“This is an important time period for our Hawaiian community and safeguarding Hawaii’s land and natural resources, including our ocean, is paramount — this is something I have fought for all of my life,” Aila said in the statement.
Said Kiaaina in the same release: “I believe my experience and knowledge in Washington, D.C., and the Pacific region will enhance my ability to serve as an OHA trustee.”
The press release does not indicate which OHA positions they will seek.
Kiaaina said in a telephone interview Monday that she and Aila would decide by February, the earliest that candidates can register to run. Both are from West Oahu, home to many Native Hawaiians: Aila is from Waianae and Kiaaina is from Nanakuli.
“We are only eligible for Oahu, either at-large or the Oahu seat, because we are residents,” said Kiaaina. “We are exploring both, putting a team together and assessing the feasibility. We both want to win.”
Aila said Monday he is “definitely” running for one of the three at-large positions on the ballot next year.
“I think OHA is doing a decent job, but it’s trying to be everything to everyone,” he said. “And I don’t know if it can do that.”
Aila wants the agency to become a stronger advocate for Hawaiian traditional cultural practices, recommit itself to language immersion and charter schools, and to respond to issues involving water use and land allotments.
“”Those are the basics I would hope that OHA would return to in terms of its primary mission,” he said.
With an operating budget of $48 million in the last fiscal year, OHA oversees a trust for Native Hawaiian beneficiaries valued at $600 million. Its funding comes from public trust land revenue, state general fund monies, interest and investment earnings, commercial property leases and withdrawals from a trust fund.
It is unusual for OHA candidates to run as a team. But the track records of Aila and Kiaaina working together could appeal to voters who are weary of OHA’s upheavals.
OHA has had four board chairs within the past 10 months, fought over the tenure of CEO Kamana’opono Crabbe, experienced significant staff turnover, debated the stewardship of Mauna Kea and clashed over its finances and purpose.
State Auditor Les Kondo is expected to release what could prove to be an explosive report on OHA by the end of the year.
One of the trustees, Rowena Akana, has been involved in lengthy litigation with seven of the trustees. She has been accused by OHA employees of human resource violations, charges she said stem from her efforts to reform the agency.
Akana has been on the board since 1990, making her the longest-serving trustee.
OHA has had four different board chairs within the past 10 months.
Another trustee, Peter Apo, reached a $25,000 settlement agreement with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission in August. In the agreement, Apo admitted to using OHA’s connections and resources to benefit his own consulting firm.
Earlier this year, former trustee Mililani Trask sued Apo over accusations that Apo violated his fiduciary responsibilities that arose from alleged incidents of sexual harassment.
In January, Apo was reported to have paid $50,000 to a former employee. Apo said Trask’s lawsuit was dismissed. The law firm representing Trask, Bickerton Dang, could not be reached to confirm that Monday.
Trask finished second to Trustee Robert Lindsey Jr. in the 2016 general election for the Hawaii Island seat. Kelii Akina, seen by some as a Trask ally, defeated longtime trustee Haunani Apoliona for an at-large seat.
Apo’s Oahu seat and Akana’s at-large post will be on the ballot next year.
All told, five of OHA’s nine board positions will be up for grabs: In addition to the posts held by Akana and Apo, they include at-large seats held by Lei Ahu Isa and John Waihee IV and the Maui post held by Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey.
Voters statewide can cast ballots in all five of the races.
Apo said he intends to run for re-election to his Oahu seat next year.
“I would temper that by saying that my circumstances with the trouble I got in has got me a little concerned as to what the impact of that might be in terms of election,” Apo said. “I’m being upfront about that.”
A trustee since 2010, Apo said another factor would be the board’s response to structural changes he is proposing for the agency.
“OHA is in trouble, and when I say it’s in trouble, I mean that we really need to restructure the way we do business,” he said. “We need to reset the strategic plan, the mission statement. And that has a lot to do with whether I run or not.”
Ahu Isa said she is running for re-election and is not concerned about the new challengers.
“I am always in the community, always out there,” she said. “ Have no worry. I work hard, just do my thing, go to neighbor island hearings and pay with my own money. I don’t want to fight with anybody.”
A trustee since 2014, Ahu Isa said she is worried about staff turnover. She also wants to work on bringing stability to OHA’s finances and land deals.
Attempts were made to reach Akana and Waihee. A staff member for Akana said she was traveling. Waihee’s office voice mail was full.
OHA races are nonpartisan, and there are no term limits.
The at-large contest in 2018 will advance the top six finishers in the primary to the general election. The top three vote-getters in November will be the winners.
Aila is the deputy director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and was chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources under then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie. He ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Democrat in 2006.
Kiaaina was Aila’s first deputy director at DLNR until being appointed assistant secretary for the Insular Areas at the U.S. Department of the Interior under President Barack Obama. She is executive director of the Pacific Basin Development Council.
Kiaaina ran unsuccessfully for the 2nd Congressional District in 2012. In December 2012, she made the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s short list of candidates, along with U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, to replace the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye. Abercrombie chose then-Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz.
Aila and Kiaaina say they were “instrumental” in Hawaii’s successful bid to host the 2016 International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress.
Aila served 24 years served as the harbormaster for the Waianae Small Boat Harbor, has served on appointed and volunteer boards and helped create the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
Kiaaina’s work experience includes serving as chief advocate for OHA and land asset manager for Kamehameha Schools. She also was legislative assistant for U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka and chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Ed Case.