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State preservation division admits criticisms are correct


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POSTED: Sunday, August 09, 2009

The state Historic Preservation Division lacks qualified staff and struggles with defective equipment, an agency official acknowledged in response to a pending federal assessment and to criticism from community groups.

A team from the National Park Service met with historic preservation employees during July 20-24 to assess the management's performance, looking at the division's correspondence, reporting methods and staff qualifications, said division Deputy Administrator Nancy McMahon.

Park service officials said the review report will be published in the fall.

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie asked the park service to write and approve the report as rapidly as possible, citing concern that Hawaii's cultural and historical resources are not being adequately protected and that the division is not performing its duties in a timely manner. Community groups have complained in the past about the division's handling of cultural sites and ancestral bones.

The Historic Preservation Division said it is not under a formal investigation, calling it a technical review. McMahon added that the review had been done before.

"I think that they didn't find anything I didn't already know we had problems with. We don't have staff, they knew that. We don't have qualified staff, we already knew that," McMahon said.

She acknowledged that the department is understaffed with only 13 or 14 workers, including the neighbor islands, and seven vacant positions. The Oahu office has eight workers, but one position was cut several days ago due to layoffs issued by Gov. Linda Lingle, McMahon said.

"It does create somewhat of a problem. I'm one person to do basically two islands right now. I still overview Maui and the Big Island, but I have to spend a lot of time reviewing items for this island now," she said.

The division had difficulty hiring staff during former Administrator Melanie Chinen's tenure, and the number of employees has fluctuated since 2007. McMahon said many employees have resigned and they are unable to fill positions because of the state hiring freeze, which has been in effect for over a year.

Additional problems include the division's Geographical Information System, which has not been updated since 2004, and a broken tracking system, she said.

"Having the full complement of staff will help us recover and get us back on our feet, figuring out how to do things ahead of time, be a little more proactive versus reactive," said McMahon, who has worked at the Historic Preservation Division for more than 20 years.

The division is contracting an architectural historian, but is missing a historian, which is required for federal funding.

The National Park Service gives the division funds through the National Historic Preservation Act, but if the division fails to meet federal mandates, it could lose federal funding.