Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 6 General Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Esther Kia’aina, a candidate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Oahu Trustee. The other candidate is Kalei Akaka.

Go to Civil Beat’s Elections Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the General Election Ballot.

Candidate for OHA Oahu Trustee

Esther Kia'aina
Party Nonpartisan
Age 55
Occupation Executive director, Pacific Basin Development Council
Residence Nanakuli


Community organizations/prior offices held

Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club; Native Hawaiian Bar Association; Kamehameha Alumni; Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa; Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association.

1. Is OHA fulfilling its mandate to serve the Hawaiian people?

OHA’s mandate is to improve the well-being of Native Hawaiians. Given the sweeping scope of its mandate and limited funding, OHA has had to set priorities and make difficult decisions. Over the past 40 years it has done much to improve the lives of Native Hawaiians. For example, it is the primary funding source for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which has won landmark cases to keep Hawaiians on their land, perpetuate traditional and cultural practices, enforce trust obligations for Native Hawaiians, protect ancient burials, and just last month won a landmark decision to restore water to kalo farmers in East Maui that had been monopolized by the sugar industry for more than a century.

Despite these achievements, much remains to be done, which is why I am a candidate for the Oahu seat on the Board of Trustees. OHA must address the recent state audit and tighten controls on discretionary funding in order to restore trust and confidence by beneficiaries and the public. OHA must become more effective and efficient in carrying out its mandate, and one way to do that is to leverage funding with other agencies and organizations that work with the Hawaiian community.

2. What would you do to change how OHA is run?

I think running for election to the OHA Board of Trustees to be part of the decision-making process, instead of just opining on what I think should be done, is a good start.

I also believe the recommendations of the state auditor are intended to strengthen OHA’s financial integrity and restore confidence in the agency. By and large, the recommendations should be adopted. I would improve transparency of the grant-making process, listen to beneficiaries and be responsive to their concerns, and treat other board members with civility, dignity and respect even when we strongly disagree

3. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Native Hawaiians? What will you do about it?

There are so many pressing issues it is difficult to identify one that is more pressing than the others, but I would make housing a top priority. A report issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in May 2017 found that the median income of Hawaiians on the Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL) waiting list was significantly lower than Native Hawaiians statewide which made it harder for them to afford the down payment on a house. Those on the waiting list also lived in markedly worse conditions than others, including houses that were overcrowded and lacked plumbing.

The report highlights the urgent need for more affordable housing for Native Hawaiians both on and off Hawaiian home lands, and the unique need for larger housing to accommodate ohana living and support Hawaiian values.

I would pursue funding outside of DHHL’s traditional homeownership programs, including rental housing assistance as recommended by the HUD report, and I would support exchanging DHHL conservation lands (over 20 percent of DHHL’s inventory) for DLNR agricultural lands to increase the availability of agricultural homestead lots.

I would also support OHA funding of quality temporary living quarters for the large number of Native Hawaiians who are homeless.

4. What are your views regarding Hawaiian independence?

I support the establishment of a Native Hawaiian government regardless of whether it is within the state of Hawaii or an independent nation.

A Native Hawaiian government would allow Native Hawaiians to have their own land base with the autonomy to make their own decisions and laws under their jurisdiction. The government would interface with the state of Hawaii, the U.S. government, and independent nations. Moreover, given that the state has the right to sale, exchange, and lease lands from the public lands trust, it is important that any outstanding land claims against the state be handled sooner rather than later before the trust is depleted or continuously tied up in long-term lease agreements.

The desire to be an independent nation, which is understandable based on the historical injustices committed by the United States, would not be limited to Native Hawaiians alone. Eligible stakeholders could range from anyone who can trace their lineage to the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, which was multiracial at that time, to the 1959 statehood vote. Even if Hawaii were to become independent, the public lands trust would simply be transferred to the independent nation. Native Hawaiians would still have to fight for Native Hawaiian rights, including land claims.

5. Is OHA getting its fair share of ceded-land revenues from the state?

No, OHA is not getting its fair share of ceded-land revenues from the state. Statutorily, Hawaii should be receiving 20 percent of its pro-rate share of the annual income derived from the state’s public lands trust, not the $15.1 million annual cap imposed on it. However, OHA needs to work on restoring the trust of the Hawaii Legislature and general public in order to be successful in its advocacy on this important issue.

That is why restoration in the confidence of the Board of Trustees is important and that is why I am running for OHA.

6. Why do you think Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in our prisons and jails? What can be done about it?

The short answer is that Native Hawaiians are among the poorest in the islands, and it is the poorest people who end up in prison.

On the positive side, OHA is providing leadership through its 2010 report “The Disparate Treatment of native Hawaiians in the Criminal Justice System,” its representation on the 2012 Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force, and its leadership on the House Concurrent Resolution 85 Task Force on Prison Reform.

As an OHA trustee I would support the following:

• Build a more comprehensive, collaborative, and restorative juvenile justice system to divert Hawaiian youth away from the juvenile system and towards pathways of success;

• Improve outcomes for Native Hawaiians youth at all critical decision points in the juvenile justice system: arrest, detention, prosecution, sentencing, probation and protective supervision placement, incarceration, and reentry;

• Institute and/or expand Native Hawaiian cultural, educational and religious programming in all correctional facilities; and

• Make culturally relevant reentry programs available to Native Hawaiians.

7.Do you support the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea?

While the Hawaii Supreme Court is currently considering whether the TMT project moves forward, the questions should be: 1) Do you believe Mauna Kea is being properly managed; and 2) Who should be determining the future of Mauna Kea?

I do not believe Mauna Kea is being properly managed, and I believe that Native Hawaiians should have a greater say in such management and determining the future of Mauna Kea. Having said that, unless a statutory moratorium is placed on future activities at Mauna Kea, OHA should continue negotiations with the University of Hawaii on a new management regime and looking after Native Hawaiian interests until a Native Hawaiian government is formed. At that time, title and management of Mauna Kea should be transferred to the Native Hawaiian government entity after negotiations with the state of Hawaii.

8. What role should the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands play in reducing homelessness?

If the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) put more Native Hawaiians on their lands through home ownership or renting opportunities, it would help eligible Native Hawaiians who are competing with the general public in an out-of-control housing market.

So first, DHHL simply needs to do an effective job at fulfilling its mission. Second, DHHL needs to have increased funds from the state and federal government for its historically underfunded program. Third, DHHL needs to evaluate its current land inventory. As stated earlier, I believe that DHHL should get rid of all of its conservation lands (over 20 percent of its inventory), and exchange it for agricultural lands held by the Department of Land and Natural Resources. This would provide more agricultural homesteading opportunities for Native Hawaiians, particularly on Oahu, where there is the need and there are ample agricultural lands. Lastly, after serving its primary mission to help all eligible Native Hawaiians, DHHL can also look at innovative ways of helping our homeless Native Hawaiians in concert with other governmental agencies and stakeholders.

With regard to strongly advocating for general homelessness policies or assisting homeless Native Hawaiians, OHA is better positioned to fulfill this role.

9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?

I do not support holding a state constitutional convention at this time. I think the opportunity to be able to vote on whether to have a convention every 10 years is a good one. However, such an action should be undertaken when people feel the system is broken. We have one of the best and more progressive constitutions compared to other states and have some of the strongest protections for the environment and indigenous peoples in the nation.

My feeling is that many of the concerns raised by people on these or any other issues can be addressed by the Hawaii Legislature through statute rather than constitutional changes. Holding legislators accountable for changes you care deeply about should be the norm, not holding constitutional conventions because you are not happy with their performance on certain issues.

10. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?

It is in OHA’s interest to continue to make ‘āina (land) a strategic priority for the organization given Hawaii’s limited land mass, complicated historical land tenure system, and skyrocketing costs of land. It is essential that OHA work with Hawaii’s leaders to protect and steward all of Hawaii’s land and natural resources. Native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights must also continue to be safeguarded. Kuleana land owners and claimants need more kokua in protecting or recovering their lands and rights. Lastly, OHA’s advocacy on the public lands trust is important beyond increased annual payments. It is important on laying the foundation for land claims that will expand OHA’s assets and our land base.

In summary, apart from Native Hawaiian land rights and claims, OHA should also do what it can to work collaboratively with other stakeholders and leaders in Hawaii on climate change adaptation strategies and initiatives, watershed protection, stream restoration, and invasive species management issues. The protection of Hawaii’s land and natural resources benefit Native Hawaiians and all of the people of Hawaii.