A lawsuit is the latest salvo in a yearslong legal battle over future of the Big Island mountain.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is suing the new authority that is slated to take over management of Mauna Kea in 2028, alleging the state-mandated board is unconstitutional and some of its members have conflicts of interest.

The suit is the most recent move by OHA in a yearslong battle over what the agency says has been mismanagement of Hawaii’s tallest mountain, which currently has a dozen astronomical observatories at its summit. Major protests have halted construction of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope.

The Mauna Kea Stewardship Oversight Authority, which was established by a 2022 law, has begun a transition period to assume responsibility for the mountain from the state and the University of Hawaii by 2028. But Robert Klein, an attorney representing OHA, said the creation of the board could make it more difficult to hold the state and university accountable for past misdeeds.

Six people smile and pose for a photo in a conference room at the Capitol
Chair of the Mauna Kea Stewardship Oversight Authority, John Komeiji, third from left, poses for a photo after receiving approval from the Senate Water and Land Committee. The board is in a transition phase as it prepares to take over responsibility for Hawaii’s tallest mountain in more than four years. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

“It looks like it was designed to take liability away from the state of Hawaii, DLNR (the Department of Land and Natural Resources) and the University of Hawaii and put it in a group that cannot possibly live up to the fiduciary obligations that it has to the beneficiaries of the trust,” he said.

Members of the authority either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Conflicts Of Interest’

OHA sued the state and the University of Hawaii in 2017 claiming “longstanding and well-documented mismanagement” of Mauna Kea. UH has been managing nearly 11,000 acres on the mountain under a 65-year lease agreement and has overseen the observatories at the summit.

But in 2022, then-Gov. David Ige signed Act 255, which created the 11-member Mauna Kea Stewardship Oversight Authority in a bid to ease divisions over the usage of the mountain. The new law also said that science must be balanced with culture and the environment.

Gov. Josh Green appointed eight members to the panel in April in addition to three other members seated separately. The appointees included Native Hawaiian cultural experts and two leaders of the 2019 protests.

Demonstrators against the building of TMT line up for a rallly at University of Hawaii at Manoa on Dole street and University Avenue on the first day of classes.
Two leaders of protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope serve on the Mauna Kea Stewardship Oversight Authority, which is preparing to assume responsibility for the mountain in 2028. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

But in the complaint filed Wednesday, OHA challenges the constitutionality of Act 255 and says that at least two members on the authority — Rich Matsuda, the director of the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, and Douglass Shipman Adams, director of research and development for Hawaii County — have conflicts of interest because of their positions and can’t serve objectively.

Adams said in an email that he could not comment on existing litigation. Matsuda did not respond to a request for comment.

The complaint also alleges that Act 255 violates the contract clause of the state constitution by nullifying the terms of the existing leases between DLNR and UH and attempting to shift responsibility for past management of the lands away from those entities.

“We have a litany of problems that have been going on in the management of these particular ceded lands for years, going back 50 years,” Klein said. “So, we don’t think creating another entity (the Mauna Kea Stewardship Oversight Authority) is going to possibly figure it out. It’ll make matters worse.” 

The University of Hawaii and the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment. DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison directed questions to the AG’s Office.

History Of Controversy

UH officials long opposed the formation of the new authority, although the university is now assisting in the transition. UH also has defended its management of the mountain, with UH President David Lassner saying in 2022 that the university had been on a “trajectory of continuous improvement” for more than 20 years.

Klein said state audits over the past decades have revealed “egregious violations” in how the state and university have managed the mountain since the first telescope was constructed there in 1968.

For example, a 1998 audit found observatories left trash and old equipment and damaged historical sites. In 2008, up to 1,000 gallons of sewage overflowed from the mountain facilities.

Klein said astronomy on Mauna Kea has been promoted “to the detriment of the Native Hawaiian people.” 

“It’s time for the state to stand up and start doing a good job up there,” he said. “Not just promise it, actually take care of it.” 

Read the lawsuit below:

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