A pair of bills would change the way OHA trustees are elected, but there are concerns they would violate constitutional rights.

Candidates for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs board of trustees would need to win their island districts rather than run a statewide election under a pair of bills that advanced Thursday with preliminary approval from the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

Currently, OHA’s nine trustees – four who are at-large and five who represent the main islands – run statewide races. One of the trustees represents both Molokai and Lanai. The system has raised concern that voters on Oahu, the most populous island, can overrule voters from other islands.

That’s what happened in the 2020 elections, when former Molokai Trustee Colete Machado won the vote in Maui County but ultimately lost to current Trustee Luana Alapa, who had more votes statewide.

Senate Bill 52 would limit OHA elections to each of these new districts proposed in the bill. Senate Bill 32, a constitutional amendment that would enact the voting provisions in SB 52, also cleared the committee.

OHA Office of Hawaiian Affairs sign. Photograph made thru the glass entrance area.
A bill that cleared its first Senate committee would change the way OHA trustees are elected. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, the committee’s chairwoman, said the goal is to provide equity to neighbor islands.

“It’s very strange if I’m voting for the Molokai person while I’m here on Oahu,” she said during the hearing.

The Attorney General’s Office had concerns with the bills and asked lawmakers to not advance them. The office is worried that the bills do not comply with a U.S. Supreme Court case that said political districts should have roughly equal populations, according to deputy AG Reece Nakamura.

The AG’s office is concerned that, due to the disparate population sizes on the islands, some trustees would be representing more residents than others, which could possibly expose the state to lawsuits under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, according to the department’s written testimony.

Under the bills, the job of creating representative districts for OHA would fall to the Hawaii Reapportionment Commission, which convenes once every decade to redraw Hawaii’s political boundaries.

In an interview after the hearing, Shimabukuro said the only way to evenly divide the state’s population among the five island seats would be to enact “canoe districts” that include parts of multiple islands. For several decades, the reapportionment commission has avoided drawing those types of districts.

Besides Nakamura, no one else appeared before the committee to testify on the bills.

In written testimony, OHA said the bill’s language may leave representation for Molokai and Lanai up in the air. The office also had concerns that reapportioning the trustees seats could add costs.

Four other individuals supported the bill, while one, Ken Conklin of Kaneohe, opposed it.

SB 32 is similar to a bill from 2021 that didn’t make it out of the Senate.

Shimabukuro amended SB 52 to add provisions that would give rural areas of the islands two representatives on the board of trustees. The idea is to divide them along the same lines as Hawaii’s two congressional districts. The bill would also stagger the terms of the at-large seats so that one rural seat and one urban seat are up for reelection every election cycle.

Shimabukuro said it would be similar to Congress.

“Then at least there’s some equity,” Shimabukuro said. “One trustee would have to answer to rural people every election; one answers to urban people.”

The measures still need to clear the Senate Judiciary Committee before facing a vote by the 25-member Senate. If the full Legislature approves them, the constitutional amendment to clear the additional step of winning approval from voters in 2024.

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