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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Volcanic Ash
OHA shot itself in the foot

By David Shapiro

The state Supreme Court's ruling against the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in the ceded-lands case is a crushing blow to OHA that leaves Hawaiians feeling betrayed again by powerful interests hostile to native rights.

But unlike previous hurts suffered by Hawaiians since the overthrow of their monarchy in 1893, this wound was mostly self-inflicted.

OHA trustees could have negotiated a fair deal with the state on ceded lands two years ago, but they grossly overplayed their hand and walked away from talks — foolishly leaving their fate to a court that had warned them to settle.

Now they must go back to the Legislature and start anew the process of setting OHA's share of revenues from ceded lands — former government and crown lands now held in trust by the state.

OHA likely will find lawmakers unsympathetic in an election-year economy that will be reeling from the fallout of last week's terrorist attacks.

Support for OHA is waning not only among legislators, but also among voters who have watched endlessly squabbling trustees do little to benefit Hawaiians with the abundant resources they already control from earlier deals with the state. That's another self-inflicted wound.

Most in Hawai'i acknowledge an obligation to our native people, many of whom have not adapted easily to the Western culture that was forced on them. The constitutional amendment creating OHA in 1978 had broad public support, as have Hawaiian drives for sovereignty and cash reparations.

But the public is frustrated that we're really no closer than we were 20 years ago to defining a workable sovereignty or a level of financial support that would be reasonable. Hawaiians fiercely disagree among themselves.

OHA was created in a robust economy that was still booming when the state in 1993 paid the first $130 million in ceded-land claims to the agency. But by 1996, when OHA won a lower-court victory for additional claims that could have totaled $1.2 billion, Hawai'i's economy was in serious decline.

Such a payout would have left the state bankrupt.

In 1999, the state offered OHA $250 million and ownership of revenue-producing lands to settle the claims, but bickering trustees turned it down — ignoring the strong advice of Chief Justice Ronald Moon to settle out of court and the ominous act of Congress to forbid use of airport money to pay OHA claims.

The state Supreme Court's reversal last week of the 1996 ruling was the latest in a string of setbacks for OHA. The U.S. Supreme Court last year opened OHA elections to non-Hawaiians, which could ultimately cost Hawaiians control of OHA and its assets, and other lawsuits challenge the constitutionality of OHA's existence.

Trustees squandered the upper hand they once held and now must get their expectations in line with reality. Gov. Ben Cayetano and the Legislature won't run the state broke to fund a bungling OHA.

Trustees should take the initiative and try to forge a reasonable ceded-lands settlement with Cayetano and lawmakers that can win support in next year's session.

To succeed, OHA will have to demonstrate quickly that things have changed — that the agency has a new administrator, a new chairman and new trustees who can get past the infighting and work together to put OHA resources to the benefit of Hawaiians.

If trustees can't step up, it's time to ask whether we should declare OHA a well-intended failure and consider other options to fulfill Hawai'i's obligation to our host culture.

OHA simply can't afford any more self-inflicted wounds if we're to avoid a tragic ending to this story.

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net