Critics say the infighting at OHA is bad enough in and of itself,
but the real problem is that the fussing and fighting
keep the agency from helping Hawaiians

By Pat Omandam

Like fighting cocks.

That's how Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Billie Beamer sees her feisty colleagues on the OHA Board of Trustees.

The nine-member board has a long-standing reputation for fussing and fighting, and critics say it keeps OHA from its mission: to improve conditions for Hawaiians.

"If you look at their performance, the behavioral patterns of trustees throughout its existence, it has always been one in which there has been a lot of friction, confrontation, fisticuffs and four-letter words - the demeanor leaving much to be desired," said Beamer. "That, to me, is the primary reason for the public disappointment and disdain."

Among some blowups in recent years:

Last March, Trustee A. Frenchy DeSoto considered a coup to unseat Hee after she was reportedly humiliated by him at a March 14 meeting. But DeSoto - whose son John heads the nine-member Honolulu City Council - was talked out of the plan by other trustees.

"I was very, very concerned if I became the chairman or any part of this majority, that if I didn't do what people wanted, they would start attacking, you know," DeSoto said. "And I would be a puppet. Consequently, I changed my mind."

Melvin Kalahiki Sr., president of the Council of Hawaiian Organizations, who lobbied for OHA's creation in the late 1970s, said there is too much politicking on the board.

"Once in a while the trustees need to take off their shoes and feel the ground outside and get back to the people in the community," Kalahiki said. "I think they stay in that office too long."

Lela Hubbard of Na Koa Ikaika, a Hawaiian rights group, said trustees should run OHA like a business, not a political body. "What occurs in OHA is that if you are in the loop, you get help. If you're not, then you just come back and back and end up with all this red tape to go through," she said.

OHA, a semiautonomous agency created in 1979, was set up as a money trust to pay for Hawaiian programs. Its sizable resources - $226 million - came under recent scrutiny at the state Legislature, where money-hungry lawmakers proposed cutting annual payments to OHA by 80 percent for the use of ceded lands. The bill died.

And there were calls for OHA participation in state-funded programs for Hawaiians.

OHA's answer was a three-month, $300,000 public relations campaign to polish its image and protect its wealth. Newspaper, radio and television ads trumpeted the agency's accomplishments and called for full payment on ceded lands.

But Beamer said too little is spent on programs for Hawaiians, while the bulk of OHA resources goes into investments.

"What are we saving for the future for when we are sacrificing the people and the children of today?" she said.

Meanwhile, OHA's image problems persist.

Francis Kauhane, vice president of Hui Kalai'aina, said many Hawaiians are tired of OHA's antics. The group, which traces its roots to 1888, hopes to unseat all four trustees up for re-election this fall: Kinau Boyd Kamalii, Moanikeala Akaka, Moses K. Keale Sr. and Samuel L. Kealoha Jr.

"The objective of Hui Kalai'aina is to restore a Hawaiian political party that will hold OHA responsible to a platform formed by Hawaiian voters," Kauhane said.

Trustees serve staggered four-year terms, with four or five positions up for election every even- numbered year.

Beamer, who some trustees say is set on exposing the board's "dirty linen" to make herself look good, blames Hee's leadership for OHA's current problems.

Their contentious relationship worsened last summer after Beamer wrote a dissenting report that led to Carpenter's firing last August. The report charged the former Big Island mayor with chronic lateness, lack of managerial vision and failure to work closely with trustees.

Council watchers say the payback came when Beamer resigned as human services committee chairwoman after she couldn't get pro-Carpenter trustees to attend her meetings. And items passed out of her panel often weren't put on the full board's agenda.

After Beamer stepped down as committee chairwoman, the board established a new rule limiting postal privileges to committee heads. That curtailed the mailings Beamer relied upon to reach her constituents.

"I realize that there are political cultures in all entities, but this culture here is one in which if you are not part of the majority party, like the state Legislature, you're in shackles," Beamer said.

Hee, currently in a five-member voting majority, has been criticized for his flamboyant, sometimes heavy-handed style of leadership.

In this April 29, 1992, photo, a group calling for OHA chairman
Clayton Hee's resignation storms a board meeting. The group
was formed because of internal troubles at the agency.

Photo by Terry Luke, Star-Bulletin

But Hee, who replaced Keale as OHA chairman in 1991, said the board's actions are determined by a voting majority. He blames the media, especially newspapers, for targeting him and ignoring OHA's accomplishments.

"Everyone has a stake in this organization," he said. "It's never one person's fault exclusively. To believe that is unreasonable and wrong."

Hee is proud of OHA's growing portfolio, which ballooned from $19 million in 1990 to $226 million this year.

The growth is partly due to a $134 million payment by the state in 1992 to settle revenues due from the use of ceded lands.

According to Abraham Aiona, OHA vice chairman, the money is invested in stocks and bonds. Long-range plans include land and market investments, he said.

But Rep. Dennis Arakaki (D, Kalihi Valley), chairman of the House Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said OHA needs to do more than build its investments.

"I think until people can actually see results from that investment, and results in terms of outcomes for Hawaiian people, there's going to be a hesitancy or a feeling that we're sort of having this pipeline that goes into OHA and nothing coming out," he said.

OHA would be well-served to end its internal bickering, he added.

"Of course, it doesn't help when they have all this infighting when actually they have a singular purpose - unlike others - by bettering the conditions of the native Hawaiians," Arakaki said.

The television, newspaper and radio ads - which showcase programs that have benefited from OHA funds - began in February and will end this month.

But even the media blitz has proved divisive among OHA's trustees. Akana said the ads nauseate her because they glorify OHA without showing exactly where its money goes.

While she was one of the five who voted to approve the campaign, Akana said the original plan was to show how OHA receives and uses its entitlements.

She now says she would would have tried to change the ads.

"It is absolutely ridiculous," Akana said. "It's not supposed to look like that."

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