Editor’s Note: Peter Apo is currently the Oahu representative on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ board of trustees. He is not running for re-election.

The Office of Hawaiians Affairs, as intended by delegates of the state’s 1978 Constitutional Convention, functions somewhat as a sovereign body politic. It functions independent of the state Legislature and governor’s office.

OHA’s mandate is to manage a Native Hawaiian Trust Fund for the “betterment of conditions of native Hawaiians.” Trust fund revenue sources include an entitlement of 20 percent of state revenue derived from the state’s use of state managed “ceded” lands.

All Native Hawaiians are beneficiaries of the trust. According to the last census there are 500,000 Hawaiians. Half live in Hawaii and the other half primarily on the mainland.

Another intention of the delegates was that OHA serve as a placeholder institution to manage the trust fund until such time that there occurs a political reconciliation between the United States and Hawaiians over the controversial annexation of Hawaii. The general expectation in 1978 when OHA was created was to seek a nation-within-a-nation relationship with the United States.

OHA Office of Hawaiian Affairs office reception area with King Kamehameha I thru Queen Liliuokalani's portraits in reception area. 5 sept 2016
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs office reception area displays portraits of Hawaiian leaders from King Kamehameha I through Queen Liliuokalani. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This model has been played out for decades by the Native American Indian tribal nations. The pursuit of this model was supported by a substantial majority of Hawaiians during the last two decades of the 20th century.

But, over the years the Hawaiian community seems to have devolved into a fractious splintering over a number of political options of which the nation-within-a-nation model is only one. Each option has its own constituent base.

There does not appear to be a political center of gravity for the purpose of discussion of the options. The subject is complicated and better served in a separate column.

Voting Eligibility, Trustee Districts, Terms of Office

OHA is governed by nine elected Trustees. It was originally intended that trustee elections be a Hawaiians-only affair. The objective was to provide Hawaiians a full measure of self-determination by allowing them to elect their own leaders. That provision was ruled illegal as a violation of federal election law.

The result is that all registered voters of Hawaii have a right to vote for OHA trustees. Further, candidates for election need not be Native Hawaiian.

It is worth noting that each OHA candidate is subject to the vote of all qualified registered voters of the state of Hawaii. This subjects OHA candidates to the considerably higher level of statewide campaigning challenges as that of lieutenant governor and governor. No other candidates for state or congressional office are subject to the same higher standard of statewide voter approval.

The nine trustees are elected to office for four-year terms. Of the nine seats, four are at-large. The remaining five seats are specific to the islands of Oahu, Hawaii Island, Kauai, Maui with Molokai and Lanai combined.

No matter that the five island-specific seats represent their island of residence, they are still subject to being elected by all voters of the state. The reality of this somewhat bizarre electoral condition places all candidates at the mercy of the significantly larger Oahu vote. Also a subject for another column.

Why Should You Vote For OHA Trustees?

It’s an unfortunate norm that the Hawaii electorate has a poor record of showing up at the ballot box. It is more unfortunate that Hawaiians tend to dominate the list of no-shows.

Add the fact that many non-Hawaiian voters who do vote on other races refrain from voting for OHA because they either don’t believe OHA is relevant to their lives – or – they believe Hawaiians should be left alone to elect their own leaders.

OHA is one of the top five most important Hawaiian rooted economic institutions that collectively pump millions of dollars into the Hawaii economy. The five are the Kamehameha Schools, Queen Liliuokalani Trust, Queen’s Hospital Systems, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and OHA.

OHA is one of the top five most important Hawaiian rooted economic institutions.

In the course of doing business, the money from these institutions flows throughout the Hawaiian economy in the form of hundreds of jobs, supplies, equipment, consultant services, vendor contracts, construction projects, commercial real estate, tourism (much of Waikiki is Hawaiian owned land).

They also provide grants-in-aid support to scores of private nonprofit community-based organizations. Hawaiian money is color blind and there is no doubt that Hawaiians are having a profound impact on Hawaii’s economic growth.

OHA is an important part of the economic equation with its land holdings, multimillion-dollar investment portfolio, and plethora of programs and services. Of the five institutions, OHA is the only one whose leaders (trustees) are subject to the will of the entire Hawaii electorate.

I encourage everyone to cast an informed vote in the OHA election.

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About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.