Cave items lawsuit busies burial council
A member alleges back-room politicking before a vote today
A MEMBER of the Hawaii Island Burial Council says the panel's chairman might have violated the state's open-meeting laws by speaking privately to other members about a vote scheduled for today.
In a letter Tuesday to state Deputy Attorney General Vince Kanemoto, who serves as legal counsel to the council, Dutchie Saffrey wrote that within the past week Chairman Charles Young had told her he was calling each member of the council individually to discuss the vote.
Saffrey wrote that Young told her the council's attorney wanted to go into executive session today to discuss the legal ramifications if the council votes in favor of intervening in a federal lawsuit over the fate of 83 artifacts from Kawaihae, or "Forbes," Cave. Saffrey said Young was opposed to an executive session.
Young refused comment yesterday, saying he wanted to see her letter first.
Kanemoto said only that "the Office of Information Practices has primary jurisdiction over complaints of Sunshine Law violations."
Saffrey wrote that from her telephone conversation with Young, "It was clear to me that he was working to line up support for his position that there should be no executive session so that he would have the votes in hand prior to the meeting to take whatever action he wanted regardless of legal advice or what public input occurred at the meeting."
At issue is a vote over the council's intervention into a lawsuit brought by two representatives of native Hawaiian organizations seeking the return of 83 items reburied five years ago in the Big island cave. The two groups want the items returned from the cave so that 14 claimants can examine the items as part of the federal consultation process that oversees the reclamation of native Hawaiian remains and artifacts from museums.
The suit was brought in August by Abigail Kawananakoa, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, and La'akea Suganuma, president of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, against the Bishop Museum and Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei (Group Caring for Ancestors of Hawaii), a native Hawaiian organization that repatriates and reburies remains and artifacts.
According to the suit, Hui Malama took the 83 items in February 2000 as a "one-year loan" from Bishop Museum. It reburied them in the cave and has since refused repeated requests to return them.
Kawananakoa and Suganuma, as claimants recognized under federal law, have said they are seeking the return of the items so that all of the claimants have an equal voice in deciding their fate.
On Sept. 7, Chief U.S. District Judge David Ezra ordered Hui Malama to retrieve the items from the cave and bring them "back to a secure location at the Bishop Museum where they will be held in an undisturbed condition" until the 14 competing claimants can decide their disposition.
Hui Malama has a pending appeal of Ezra's order before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, at its September meeting, Hui Malama asked the Burial Council to intervene in the suit on its behalf.
Saffrey is at odds with Young in part because Young supports Hui Malama on the issue and she does not.
In a December state auditor's report, the island burial councils, as a group, were criticized for failing to file notices with agendas of their meetings.
Last month, the Honolulu City Council was sued by eight journalism and open-government organizations for violating the state's open-meeting laws when its members met privately to discuss a reorganization plan before coming together for a public vote.