William Aila, the interim director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, will face more tough questions from state lawmakers in what could be a long road to Senate confirmation.

The Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee put off voting on Aila’s nomination after a more than seven-hour hearing Thursday that stretched into the night. The vote is now expected Jan. 30.

“You’ve given us a lot to consider,” Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, the committee chair, said to the few who stayed through the whole meeting.

DHHL William Aila during Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee meeting.
Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Director William Aila Jr. during a Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee meeting. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Last year, the same panel narrowly recommended Aila as a deputy director at DHHL. He has served as interim director since Gov. David Ige nominated him in May.

The DHHL director is responsible for managing more than 200,000 acres of land held in trust for homesteading by Native Hawaiians, who are eligible for those homesteads so long as they can prove they have a blood quantum of at least 50%.

Aila had support from various Native Hawaiian non-profit organizations, heads of state departments and many residents across the state. But some residents of Hawaiian Homes associations opposed his nomination.

Even if he gains the recommendation of the Senate panel, Aila must still clear a vote by the full 25-member Senate.

The committee room in the State Capitol basement was packed with testifiers Thursday. More than 350 pages of written testimony were sent to the senators before the hearing.

Supporters cited projects Aila has moved forward like Ulu Ke Kukui, which receives ohana zone funds for transition housing; the Nanakuli Village Center, an affordable housing development; and planning for the former Bowl-O-Drome site in Moiliili, where DHHL plans to build a high-rise.

Those who opposed his nomination did so over the apparent slow progress DHHL has made in developing homes and reducing the waitlist for homesteads.

“We and the Hawaiian Homes Land Trust deserve more than crumbs,” Maile Lu’uwai, president of the Keaukaha-Panaewa Farmers Association, said. 

The association helps farmers develop lots on DHHL’s lands in Keaukaha-Panaewa on the Hilo side of the Big Island. Lu’uwai worried that testifying could jeopardize her chances of getting a license from DHHL.

The waitlist for homesteads has grown to around 28,000 as the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act nears its 100th anniversary. That has long been a criticism of the department, not only while Aila was director but for those before him as well.

Supporters, detractors and even Aila agreed that certain processes at DHHL should be reformed.

Aila opened with a statement that he promises to be more open and less defensive when criticized.

Senators spent about an hour questioning Aila on progress he’s made as an interim director.

Aila said figuring out how to care for the cows, remove the man, then deal with any ensuing lawsuits has complicated things.

It was just the first in a laundry list of things Kahele wanted a progress report on from Aila.

“I’ve just gone down the agendas and highlighted references to when you said you’d get something done as the director,” Kahele said.

Feral cattle on Mauna Kea, compensation for the state and federal government’s use of DHHL lands in Hawaii, the department’s finances, and gorse weed removal were all on Kahele’s list.

Aila was previously a deputy in the department under former Chair Jobie Masagatani, whom Aila appointed to a DHHL position even after she lacked Senate votes to retain control of the department.

He was also director at the Department of Land and Natural Resources under Gov. Neil Abercrombie, and previously worked as the Waianae Harbor master for over 20 years.

DHHL Deputy Tyler Iokepa Gomes during senate hearing.
DHHL Deputy Director Tyler Iokepa Gomes has been with the department for three months and most recently worked at Elemental Excelerator. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The committee also took up Ige’s nomination of Tyler Gomes, a newcomer to Hawaii politics, as the deputy director of DHHL. The committee also deferred that decision.

Senators’ questions for Gomes centered around how he would better involve those on the waitlist in planning decisions, as well as how the Hawaiian Homes Commission determines what lands it doesn’t need for building homes.

They spent over an hour grilling him on his opinions of the future of DHHL, on technical aspects of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and on legal cases affecting DHHL in state history.

They even went back at times to testimony that Prince Kuhio, one of the authors of the act, gave to Congress over 100 years ago to help establish what the original intent of certain sections were.

But Gomes caught some criticism from some testifiers just for being associated with Aila. Many who testified had no idea who Gomes was before the meeting.

Addressing the packed committee room, Gomes won the crowd over with a speech about searching through his genealogy and finding a record that could prove his family had the blood quantum to apply for a homestead.

His father, who was in the crowd, couldn’t prove that genealogy in the 1980s, Gomes said.

Gomes, a former public defender, most recently worked for Elemental Excelerator, a nonprofit that invests in startup companies in Hawaii.

When he first arrived at DHHL about three months ago, one employee asked him why he would take this job.

“I chanced it, because I really do believe my generation stands to inherit so many challenges, but so many benefits,” he said, recalling the conversation during the hearing. “If we don’t stand up now, what is the time to stand up?”

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