Voters in Maui County will soon decide the fate of a sweeping proposal to facilitate a bilingual local government.

Maui County locator map

The measure would require the county to issue all official notices in English and Hawaiian, the endangered language of Hawaii’s native people that, after generations of decline, is experiencing a revival.

The Nov. 8 ballot question would also create an oiwi, or Indigenous, resources department to manage county activities related to Hawaiian language, place names, natural resources, cultural sites and practices and ancestral burials and bones. The department would collaborate with the county planning director on revisions to the Maui County General Plan and other long-range planning documents to better protect and perpetuate these resources.

It’s one of 13 proposals to alter Maui County’s charter that voters will consider this election, marking the culmination of a once-a-decade process that grants citizens of Maui, Molokai and Lanai a chance to refine the political system that shapes their daily lives. Voters will also consider reforms geared at increasing transparency in law enforcement, promoting government ethics and boosting access to public records.

Maui County Building, voter box
Maui County voters will decide the outcome of 13 charter amendments on the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election. Bryan Berkowitz/Civil Beat/2020

The proposed charter amendment to create a Department of Oiwi Resources would support the county’s constitutional duties to protect public natural resources and Hawaiian customs and traditions, supporters say.

The county has already hired Hawaiian language translators, and in June 2020 hired an archeologist for the first time to protect natural, cultural and historical resources.

These and other positions could eventually find a more fitting home under a new oiwi resources department, said Maui County Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who said she also envisions the department as a resource for real estate developers looking to hire a cultural consultant or find resolution in situations where construction activity uncovers ancestral bones.

But the measure’s critics say it’s unclear how far it would go.

Would the county develop Hawaiian language election ballots and street signage? And if so, would these changes measurably improve the perpetuation of Hawaiian culture and language? Or would they merely become expensive symbols of respect toward the county’s host culture?

And what would all of this cost?

There is no publicly available financial analysis of what the department would cost taxpayers if voters approve it. County Auditor Lance Taguchi said such an assessment is underway but likely won’t be publicly available until early October.

Coincidentally, a separate charter amendment on the ballot would mandate a financial impact report for future charter amendment proposals.

In the meantime, voters might consider costs associated with the new Maui County department devoted to agriculture, which voters overwhelmingly voted to create in 2020.

The agency, which officially launched July 1, marks a pivotal step in the effort to fill the economic void created by the loss of sugar and pineapple. It so far has a staff of two — an appointed director and deputy director, who earn salaries of $114,000 and $102,600, respectively.

“A brand new department is very, very expensive,” said Maui County Council Chair Alice Lee, who backed the new agriculture department but said there are too many unanswered questions about the cost and purpose of an oiwi department for her to throw her support behind it.

“Although it might be important to have a Department of Oiwi Resources,” she said, “is it something that we absolutely need at the moment compared to health care or public safety or climate change? Because somebody has to pay for it. There are a lot of competing causes fighting for a sliver of discretionary funds.”

Maui Charter Commissioner Keoni Kuoha, one of the authors of the proposed charter amendment, insists that the department would start small. Its role, at least at first, would primarily be advisory.

One of the department’s duties, he said, would initially be “helping the planning department plan better” so as to avoid costly and contentious clashes between the goals for Hawaiian resources protection and county planning and development.

“In cases where development and planning hasn’t taken into consideration different cultural resources, those often turn into contested cases, they turn into lawsuits,” Kuoha said. “I see this department as an opportunity well upstream of those conflicts to simply plan better.”

An oiwi resources department, he added, would not only benefit Hawaiians.

“If you look at any hula halau or canoe club or any other group that’s practicing Hawaiian culture, it’s not just Hawaiians,” Kuoha said. “Some of them moved to Hawaii a couple of years ago, realized that this is a beautiful practice, and they’ve adopted it as part of their own practice.”

Voters are expected to received their ballots in the mail for the general election by mid-October.

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

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