Colette Machado has served on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees since 1996. Back then, she was known for her protests against development by Molokai Ranch and her advocacy for the protection of Molokai’s streams and fishponds.

But this year she faces a strong challenge from Luana Alapa. The former Miss Hawaii and current modeling instructor managed to beat Machado during the August primary — although she didn’t garner enough votes to win outright.

The two differ on whether to build the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea; whether to spend OHA money on furthering Native Hawaiian self-governance; and how to ensure transparency and accountability at OHA. Machado’s supporters include well-known local Democrats while Alapa’s overlap with conservative candidate Keli’i Akina.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Board of Trustees makes key decisions about how OHA spends its trust funds, investments and assets worth a combined estimated $600 million. Its nine trustees serve four-year terms and there are no term limits. Machado’s is one of three seats on the ballot this November.

Although Machado’s seat represents Molokai and Lanai, all Hawaii voters cast ballots in each OHA race. That means it’s possible Molokai and Lanai voters won’t choose their representative. Even though Alapa garnered more votes overall during the primary, Machado was favored in Maui County, which includes Maui, Molokai and Lanai. But Alapa won handily on Oahu, which has far more voters.

Colette Machado, left, faces a strong challenge from Luana Alapa. 

As of Sept. 26, Machado had spent more than $18,000 — more than twice as much as Alapa — and still had more than $9,600 in the bank. Both candidates spent the bulk of their money on advertising, according to their latest campaign filings. 

Machado received $2,000 from Jennifer Sabas, who was a staffer for the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye and also gave money to OHA candidate Keoni Souza. Machado also got money from Esther Kia‘aina, who served in the Department of the Interior under former President Barack Obama, and former OHA trustee Oswald Stender. 

Alapa has spent more than $7,400 as of Sept. 26 and still had over $1,700 in the bank. She received $2,500 from Ironworkers Local 625 and $200 from retired University of Hawaii professor Randall Roth, who also gave money to Akina. 

In her more than two decades on OHA’s board, Machado has survived political infighting and currently serves as its chair. In 2000, she joined the rest of the OHA board in stepping down in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Rice vs. Cayetano, which said Hawaii law limiting elections to voters with Hawaiian ancestry was unconstitutional. She was re-elected and says she’s proud of her record establishing guidelines for disbursing OHA’s grants and supporting lawsuits and communities pushing for water rights.

In 2009, she voted in favor of building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea along with most of the board. Six years later, she and the board withdrew their support under pressure from activists. They later sued the state over its mismanagement of the mountain and now Machado said she opposes the construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea.

OHA Election Coverage

She told Civil Beat that her initial opinion was influenced by TMT supporters such as Richard Ha and later changed by detractors who made her aware of how large the structure would be and its environmental impacts.

Like Machado, Alapa believes that the state has poorly managed the mountain. But unlike Machado, she doesn’t outright oppose the telescope’s construction.

Alapa told Civil Beat that it’s hard for her to say whether she supports the TMT, noting, “I don’t want to be in a position where I have that being attacked.” Instead, she said she believes the project should not move forward until stakeholders come to the table.

“Right now nothing really should move forward until we meet and address these management issues and allow our stakeholders and Hawaiians to be part of the decision-making,” she said. She wants OHA to be able to co-manage the mountain.

Alapa also declined to say where she stands on Hawaiian self-governance. Machado is a longtime supporter of obtaining federal recognition for Native Hawaiians.

OHA helped fund a Native Hawaiian constitutional convention but a planned vote on the constitution was derailed by a lawsuit from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, led by Akina.

Clarification: The lawsuit effectively prevented the election from taking place as the organizers cancelled it to prevent a lengthy legal battle.

Machado hopes a privately funded election would occur and said she thinks OHA might legally be allowed to encourage beneficiaries to participate in the election. She lamented Akina’s lawsuit that prevented a vote from taking place, calling it a “calculated move” to prevent Hawaiians from establishing a nation within a nation.

Alapa, meanwhile, doesn’t think OHA money should be spent on nation-building efforts.

“We already spent millions of dollars that didn’t produce anything. So we need to be careful and not go that route again until they come to a determination,” she said, referring to Native Hawaiians deciding what self-governance model they prefer. “Only the Hawaiian people can re-establish the Hawaiian nation.”

She declined to say whether she supports federal recognition, independence or any other form of self-governance. Instead, she said she’d support whatever form of government the majority of Hawaiians vote for in an election separate from OHA.

Another area where the candidates differ is on how to ensure accountability and transparency in spending. If re-elected, Machado promised to work on creating a transparency portal on OHA’s website to explain where all of the agency’s money is going. At the same time, she criticized the focus on OHA spending.

“We are audited up the gazoo consistently, annually, quarterly,” Machado said. “I just don’t understand why people don’t just leave us alone and allow us to do our (jobs).”

The semi-autonomous state agency has often clashed with the state Ethics Commission and the auditor’s office. A judge recently ruled in OHA’s favor in an ongoing lawsuit, preventing the state auditor from accessing attorney-client protected conversations from OHA trustees during executive session.

Alapa has made transparency and accountability a central part of her platform, telling Civil Beat that she wants to address the concerns raised in the state’s audit of OHA.

“It’s like taking over a business,” she said. “You need to know: where’s the money, where is it going to?”

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