The traditional sticks are commonly given to dignitaries by developers at groundbreaking ceremonies.

County officials should give back the pricey koa digging sticks they received at a recent groundbreaking ceremony for a housing development in West Maui, the Maui Board of Ethics says.

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To celebrate the late spring start of construction for Pulelehua, a development of roughly 1,000 homes in part subsidized by millions of county dollars, each official who posed for photographs was given a wooden digging stick to thrust into the ground and then take with them when the event wrapped up. 

Maui County Council member Tamara Paltin said she was planning to report the digging stick on the financial disclosure form she fills out when she receives a gift of $50 or more. To her surprise, she learned the o‘o — a routine ceremonial token for years in Hawaii — was made out of koa and worth an estimated $400. 

“Could this possibly be perceived like a reward, or a thank you?” Paltin said. “That’s the crux of the issue.”

State and county leaders use o‘o to break the ground at a new water well in West Maui earlier this month. (Courtesy: Maui County/2023)

For Paltin, who served much of her time as a council member during the pandemic when in-person events were canceled, receiving the stick at the recent ceremony was a first. So she and another colleague, Nohe Uʻu-Hodgins, a first-time council member who also received her first o‘o at the groundbreaking, wrote to the Board of Ethics to ask what they should do.

The board’s decision Wednesday could set a precedent for how Maui’s government officials handle o‘o and other tributes that have long been doled out during groundbreakings across the Hawaiian Islands without question. 

“The perception in the community is what ultimately we need to protect,” Gerri Lewis, the ethics board chair, told her colleagues.

The council members’ requests for the board to weigh the issue come as there is a sharp focus on tightening up ethics rules throughout the islands. In recent years, two former Hawaii legislators and two former Maui County officials pleaded guilty to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes in one of the largest public corruption scandals in Hawaii’s history.

Across the state, ethics watchdogs have since looked more closely at curbing so-called “gifts of aloha,” which typically include small items like cookies, malasadas, manapua or musubi. 

But throughout the islands, politicians, business leaders and developers have been posing with digging sticks for decades. Photographs show government leaders and executives smiling while holding them at groundbreaking ceremonies that range from one held for Maui’s Target to the Honolulu rail project and a new legal assistance building at the University of Hawaii’s law school.

Sometimes the sticks are kept as gifts, sometimes they’re just for the photo op.

Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, left, and Sens. Daniel Akaka, center, and Daniel Inouye carry o‘o at a ceremonial groundbreaking in Kapolei for the Honolulu rail project on Feb. 22, 2011. (Civil Beat/2011)

At the state level, officials must disclose when they receive gifts of more than $200, including those to close family members like children and spouses. In Maui County, elected officials must note any gifts over $50. They also aren’t allowed to accept any gifts that might possibly be perceived as an attempt to influence them or a reward for a specific decision. 

In an interview, Paltin said that although the ethics board’s decision technically only applies to her and her colleague’s specific experiences, she hopes that it will set a precedent while making it easier for county officials to politely decline what have long been standard ceremonial gifts.

Back when koa was more widely available, the o‘o might have been less expensive, Paltin said. But giving them away during ceremonies is still so widespread that some executives are trying to figure out how to make them out of cheaper wood.

“If they use some invasive wood and it’s less than $50, then is it OK?” Paltin asked. “I’m not sure.”

In the weeks since the Pulelehua ceremony alone, she said she was given a second o‘o for the groundbreaking of a new county well in West Maui. Although she doesn’t think it’s made of koa because it’s much lighter, she is returning that one, too.

“That’s why I wanted a formal opinion — to be very clear,” Paltin said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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