The first shot from the Honolulu Star Advertiser, as front-page news, taking the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) to task for what it reported as a long history of grievous mismanagement of trust lands spanning decades, was probably a long overdue wake-up call. Within the same month, a second front-page exposé ensued with the same shame-on-you fanfare. Then a third take-no-prisoners assault showered salt into still bleeding departmental wounds. What began as a shot across the bow followed by two more salvos now appears to be a deliberately vitriolic attempt to actually sink the ship.
I am not an apologist for DHHL. Yes, it’s difficult to explain the seemingly egregious mismanagement of the trust over the years with scores of homestead applicants dying while waiting in line, and the breaches of leasing policies in questionable lease awards to folks who might be connected to administrators and politicians in high places. Given the department’s inventory of over 200,000 acres of trust lands, it’s hard to understand its failure to build a portfolio of commercial leases in order to create a revenue stream to fund homestead development. There are more questions than answers. So, let’s suck it up, take our licks, and move on to find solutions.
But there are other aspects of the Star Advertiser assault that bother me. Reading between the lines, it sounds like it was driven by an identifiable dissident group of beneficiary informants who perhaps believed they were doing the right thing by providing the paper with the cross and nails for the crucifixion. C’mon, gang. The department has been a victim of years of failed oversight of trust management from the highest levels of federal and state leadership. The buck only starts at the departmental level – it stops at a much higher rung up the ladder. The Star Advertiser did not go far enough in its public hanging. Apparently, by exclusion, it exonerates the higher levels of government officialdom. Further, it didn’t cite some of the root causes of departmental dysfunctions, like ninety-three years of failure to provide adequate funds to pay for homestead development. And, by the way, without help, the department will go completely broke in 2015, when its already meager funding runs out.
Among the issues is the need to revisit the restrictions of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act itself to allow for developing affordable multi-unit leasehold apartments for the hundreds of young couples just starting a family, and for kūpuna (seniors), who don’t need, and can’t afford, a single family residential lot. Then there’s the longstanding barrier for residential lot applicants. Leased land cannot be offered as collateral on a homeowner loan so they can’t qualify for a mortgage. Perhaps I’m being naïve in my assessment, as I don’t claim to be an expert on DHHL issues. If some of my assumptions are wrong, I stand corrected. But I write this column with some hurt in my heart because fellow Hawaiian institutions have remained aloof. The silence is deafening. The department lies wounded and abandoned.
The irony of it all is that every one of the Hawaiian institutional entitlements that have grown to historic proportions over the years and birthed billions of dollars in programs and services for Hawaiians is rooted and anchored by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act as the underpinning of national and state public policy that allowed us to recover and stand up again as a people. I close by saying aloha to all of those who carry on the work of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. May God bless and guide you toward the light.