Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Peter Apo isn’t running for re-election this year. And that means there’s a rare opportunity to get a new voice into OHA, an agency dedicated to the betterment of Hawaiians that’s been mired in political infighting and alleged ethics violations.
Apo has been a trustee for the last eight years and also served for two years back in the 1980s. He’s made a name for himself as a pro-business leader who supported the Thirty Meter Telescope and federal recognition of Native Hawaiians.
But his reputation took a hit last year after he paid a $25,000 fine for using his office to conduct personal business. The ethics violations included asking staff members to research columns he wrote for Civil Beat, entering a deal with an OHA contractor on the Kakaako Makai master plan and emailing the organization behind the TMT to offer consulting services. Around the same time, Apo was also accused of sexual harassment, a claim OHA settled for $50,000.
Apo says he decided not to run because he’s disillusioned with the board and its ability to get things done. “I give up,” he said.
His departure creates an opportunity for a new person to join a board divided between shifting factions. His successor could help cement support for chairwoman Colette Machado and the organization’s chief executive officer Kamana’o Crabbe, or add a voice to the ongoing chorus calling for Crabbe’s dismissal.
Apo is considered a swing vote on the nine-member board. Apo says he engineered the ousting of Rowena Akana from the OHA chairmanship last year, which put Machado in charge.
But Apo says he’s made up with Akana. He’s now among a group of trustees including Akana who supports replacing Crabbe, and estimates the board is just shy of the six votes needed to bring about his dismissal.
There are seven candidates running for the Oahu seat:
Francine Kanani Murray and Leona Kalima both worked at OHA for many years and say their experience within the organization will help fix its problems.
Kalei Akaka works at Kamehameha Schools and wants to extend the legacy of her grandfather, the late U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka.
Jackie Kaho’okele Burke says she has run for OHA at least four times and wants to install a new CEO.
Paul Mossman is calling for the creation of a Native Hawaiian corporation to control homestead land and OHA assets.
Sam Wilder King II is running on a platform of accountability and transparency, echoing the conservative message of Keli’i Akina that helped Akina upset incumbent Haunani Apoliona two years ago.
But according to state filings, the only candidate actively fundraising is Esther Kia’aina, who has a long history of public service at the state and federal level.
Healani Sonoda-Pale, who leads Ka Lahui Hawaii Political Action Committee, says the race for the Oahu OHA trustee seat is the one to watch this year. Whereas incumbents seeking at-large OHA seats have the benefit of name recognition, the contest to represent Oahu is wide open and could influence the dynamics on the board.
“It’s a really important race,” Sonoda-Pale said.
Kia’aina served as deputy director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources under former Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie. She also spent several years in Washington, D.C., working in the Department of Interior during former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Kia’aina says she is running to restore civility and accountability to OHA. She says she’ll stick to a self-imposed three-term limit if she gets elected. She cites her expertise in land management issues as one way she’s different from Apo.
Kia’aina’s ties with the Interior Department mean many expect her to support the federal recognition of Hawaiians, which would put Hawaii’s native people on par with Native American tribes.
But Kia’aina says she thinks that it’s not OHA’s place to decide the sovereignty issue and the agency should be spending money on bread-and-butter problems like the cost of housing.
“OHA’s role should be reprioritized to quality of life issues that are important to my community,” she said. “It is not the role of OHA to be advocating or actively participating in the formation of the government. That is something that has to be independent of OHA.”
Unlike Apo, Kia’aina does not support the TMT project as currently proposed. “I have grave concerns about moving forward with the project under the current system under the current management regime,” she said.
Kia’aina said she doesn’t have enough information about ongoing investigations to say whether she would support Crabbe remaining as CEO. When asked whether she is friends with Crabbe, she said, “I know a lot of people including Kamana’o. I’m friends with all the trustees.”
She said she would handle the matter of Crabbe’s contract objectively. She declined to say whether Crabbe has contributed to her campaign. Campaign spending reports will be published July 12.
King is an attorney at Hawaii Medical Service Association who says he decided to run after a state audit lambasted OHA for misspending in February. King says one of the biggest differences between him and Kia’aina is that one of his top priorities is getting rid of Crabbe.
“I’m going to be pushing for a CEO that is just a new fresh face,” he said, criticizing Crabbe’s record as head of OHA’s research department. “It’s time for a change, it’s time to re-evaluate and get back to basics.”
A previous version incorrectly referred to Sam King III. The candidate is Sam King II.
King comes from the same conservative perspective as current trustee Akina, who leads the nonprofit Grassroot Institute and legally challenged OHA’s efforts to create a Hawaiian government.
Like Akina, King disagrees with race-based government. Like Apo, King supports the TMT. King says money that would go to self-government efforts should be spent on issues like education.
“Limited government, responsible spending, that’s what OHA needs,” King said, noting that he’s been a fiduciary on his homeowners’ association for the past four years.
Two former OHA staffers also say they can improve OHA’s fiscal accountability. Murray is a compliance officer at the Hawaii Community Development Authority who says she spent 18 years working at OHA in various departments.
“That’s why I know its strengths and its weaknesses and I know how to make it better,” said Murray.
First up for her is updating internal policies and guidelines to prevent bad spending and ethics violations. She wants to get rid of discretionary grants made by the CEO and change the trustee allowances so that expenditures have to be approved before they are made.
She doesn’t have an opinion on Crabbe’s contract and thinks the issue of self-determination is something that Hawaiians should decide separate from OHA. She supports the TMT, but wants better management of Mauna Kea.
“All of the negative media around OHA has just been so disheartening,” she said. “When Peter said that he wasn’t going to run again I thought maybe I should throw my name in the hat. I have so many ideas on how it could be fixed. I have good working relationships with all the existing trustees.”
She remembers when she first started working at OHA in 1990 how enthusiastic she was and how the organization held many community events on weekends.
“It feels a little disjointed and less connected to people now,” she said. “I think we need to get back to grass roots and helping people instead of only advocating. We can do both.”
Kalima is another longtime OHA staffer who says that her 22 years at the agency give her the insight needed to address problems. She didn’t respond to messages seeking comments for this story, but spoke at an OHA forum earlier this summer at Windward Community College where she said that the agency needs to do a better job of making sure its money is actually helping Hawaiians.
“If you’re spending $30 million on a nation, where is it?” she asked, criticizing the use of OHA money for sovereignty efforts. Kalima is a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands challenging the agency’s delays in awarding homestead leases. She thinks OHA should be spending its money on housing subsidies and similar practical assistance.
“We have to help our people,” she said, adding that the money should go to beneficiaries and not nonprofits. “I promise you a chicken in every pot. I want you to have money from this corpus.”
Mossman is running for OHA with one mission: to push the idea of creating a Native Hawaiian corporation similar to Alaska Native corporations.
His day job involves fixing baths and sinks as a remodeling contractor, but he got inspired to run for office in part because of his father: a native speaker of the Hawaiian language who was half-Hawaiian. Mossman says the language and culture is worth preserving and thinks political sovereignty is too threatening to non-Hawaiians to be feasible.
“Cultures fade away if they don’t have economic sovereignty,” Mossman said. “Win or lose, I want people to understand the importance of gaining economic sovereignty in the long run.”
Mossman believes that a corporation that manages the assets of both OHA and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands would avoid the fiscal accountability problems that plague the public agencies.
Kalei Akaka was also inspired by a family member — the celebrated late U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka, her grandfather. She grew up in Kona and previously worked for Democratic state legislators and decided to run to give back to her community.
“We have to be able to work together,” she said. “Are we really meeting the goals of the original mission?”
Akaka supports both federal recognition for Hawaiians and the TMT. She has no position yet on issues like the CEO contract or the development of Kakaako Makai. She supports OHA doing more for education but doesn’t have specific plans, saying she’ll know more about what can be improved if she gets on the board.
Akaka’s entrance into the race surprised Burke, who has run for OHA four of five times and says she was looking forward to being the first name listed on the ballot alphabetically. Burke believes the current CEO has too much power and describes herself as a “visionary.”
At the Windward Community College forum, she described her dreams of Hawaiians getting revenue from medical marijuana, creating a foreign trade zone to bypass the Jones Act and owning their own utilities and banks. She held up artwork she created and described it as a message of unity.
“My message is to nurture unity,” she said.
Apo says he doesn’t know yet whom he will vote for this year, but he believes the Oahu seat is significant.
“The whole state twirls around Oahu,” he said. “This is where the money comes from.”
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