About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

A hearing last week with the DHHL director showed what happens when grandstanding and acrimony are put aside.

The biggest problem with Hawaii’s government is the Eternal Chasm between what state agencies are supposed to do and what actually gets done. 

Laws don’t get implemented. Deadlines pass and pass again. Legislation and other policy pronouncements disappear into the state agency netherworld and never come out or come out very late in time and very lame in excuse.

Last week’s legislative hearing with Kali Watson, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands director, was more than stellar. It could be a model of what’s needed to tackle that problem.

But what happened inside the room depended on what happened outside the room. That’s what makes what happened in the hearing both promising and complicated.

The DHHL session was civil and efficient — no legislator grandstanding, no cowering or evasiveness, no pitifully sad, lame apologies for malfeasance. 

Watson was clear about what he wanted and candid about what he hadn’t achieved. He told the committee that he did not spend all of the $600 million that the Legislature had allocated and gave good reasons as well as a timetable for using the rest of the funds.

A calm confident relaxed guy and a polite, supportive group of legislators. What? Are we in the right place?

Hearings are so often nasty, brutish, and long that we start thinking of them as the norm, even as the most effective way to do the people’s business.

Often they are, but scolding and threatening have their limits. These flaws are not about nastiness. They’re about ineffectiveness.

Think of two types of legislative hearings. Call them vice principal’s office” and “school counselor’s office.”

Legislative hearings don’t have to be nasty to be effective. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Vice Principal’s Office

My high school vice principal was an ex-Marine. Semper Fear. Because it was all about fear.

The agenda of your trip to the vice-principal’s office was to make abundantly clear what you did wrong. 

You were pretty much screwed before you entered the room. Your words didn’t count because you’re a mischief-maker or a goofball too dumb or unworthy to say anything.

A degradation ceremony ending with “Shape up or else! Now get outta here!”

There are a lot of legislative vice principal’s office hearings, sometimes because legislators are showoffs, bullies or have their own agenda.

Other times, let’s face it, the officials appearing before them really seem as bozo-like as a 13-year-old boy who put a whoopee cushion on his homeroom’s teacher’s chair.

Many examples. The DOE alone could fill an archive. But the most recent involved the University of Hawaii, which often gets unfairly pummeled. But not this time.

UH officials’ excuses for the unmaintained, dangerous hog-pen dorm conditions can summed up as “It’s an organizational structure problem that we haven’t quite been able to work out” or “It’s the rules, not the tools.” Or my personal favorite: “I did not know that that dorm was closed.”

Hey, President Lassner, it’s a high-rise, not a tiny accessory dwelling unit behind aunty’s bungalow. Just keep an eye out for the permanently darkened big building where no living soul ingresses or egresses.

The overall problem with this approach, though, is not that’s it’s nasty or unfair. It’s that vice principal methods don’t reduce the Eternal Chasm. Too much noise in the room. Too little follow-up afterwards. Too much bluster, too few results.  

Too much front-end oversight, too little on the back end where things have to get done.

UH President David Lassner, right, recently gave legislators good reason to get exercised. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

School Counselor’s Office

Different assumptions, different objectives, different vibes. Heading for the counselor’s office, you may be a little nervous, but you’re not really worried that you will get your ass chewed out. 

The counselor doesn’t see you as a dork or a delinquent but rather as an essentially good, competent youngster needing help and worth listening to. Mutual problem solving, not scolding.

That’s close to what took place in the DHHL hearing. Great, but …

The counselor approach could be a useful model, but only if things that made the DHHL hearing possible are present. That’s not easy.

Here are three things that made the DHHL meeting effective and that could make government more effective.

First, DHHL went into the hearing with a good reputation for flexibility and responsibility. Quite a change from an organization whose legacy was thousands of people living and dying on a waiting list that never got smaller because DHHL’s approach never changed. That kind of change is rare. This gave Kali Watson a head start before he even entered the room.

Second, Hawaiian groups, the governor and key legislators, including those on the committee, support DHHL’s direction.

The public should not be seduced by the noise of legislative hearings. Legislators shouldn’t be either.

Third, and most important regarding the struggle against the Eternal Chasm, the conditions around DHHL are ripe for keeping watch and actively following up. 

This is not like the recent fiscal farce where legislators gave DOE almost as much money as DHHL got but did such a bad job checking on how that agency was using the funds, that they were surprised when DOE did nothing with the money and, get this, gave it back.

Housing has become too important an issue and too many people have a stake in DHHL’s success to bury their heads in the sand.

Of course, in Hawaii you never know for sure. Things that you thought were a done deal turn out to be no deal at all. 

Still, the DHHL situations seems poised to keep this from happening, starting with a process that does not end with a legislative committee beat-down.

The public should not be seduced by the noise of legislative hearings. Legislators shouldn’t be either.

DHHL is at least a glimmer of hope that there will be a more comprehensive oversight and that it will set an example for a kind of government that makes people hopeful instead of cynical.

And maybe even move state government out of detention and into gifted and talented.

Read this next:

Ben Lowenthal: Many States Are Moving To Shorten Probation Periods. Hawaii Isn't One Of Them

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Thank you Neal. An enormous topic, how government works or doesn't. Is the legislature responsible for keeping an eye on things? Or, is the executive branch? Both? Please keep going on this subject, don't be afraid to explore further and explain how things work or are supposed to. The public wants/needs to know. We need to get our money's worth for one thing. And there are so many issues that are not being taken care of, forever lingering.

pinocchio · 2 weeks ago

Yessah! It is definitely refreshing to have a Director of DHHL that has a development mindset. Kali Watson is perfect for the task of smashing the waitlist.Gone are the days of "One size fits all!". Though Kali has his detractors, they are mostly made up of native Hawaiians who already have their Homestead Lots, trying to tell us waitlisters what we should be getting.Some want a Homestead Lot with a turnkey home. Some want just a rental unit. Some want just raw land with no infrastructure.With Kali, he is trying a buckshot approach that includes offerings that is a perfect fit for all who are on the waitlist.Besides, if it comes down to a choice of remaining homeless on a beach or taking a Condo while you work towards a Homestead lease award, the option of a Condo is a no Brainer.Holomua Kānaka!

KeKanaka · 2 weeks ago

My biggest issue with UH President, David Lassner, is that he doesn't "walk his campus". And he fully admitted to it. That dorm had been vacant for SEVEN YEARS, and he didn't know about it. All he had to do was to just WALK THE CAMPUS, even just once-per-semester, and he would have seen that these dorms were vacant and in disrepair because it's THAT obvious. But he doesn't ever walk the campus, so he didn't know. He's a "leader" who leads purely from the ivory tower, and who doesn't know what's going on at ground level.

nkc · 2 weeks ago

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