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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 17, 2009

OHA's Apoliona sets standard for service

By David Shapiro

A political organizer recently asked me which local elected officials I respect the most and a surprising name came quickest to mind: Haunani Apoliona, chairwoman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Apoliona ran for the OHA board of trustees in 1996 after she became disgusted with the agency's incompetence and vicious infighting, which she felt were an embarrassment to Hawaiians and a squandering of OHA's native resources worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Her aim was to run a slate of candidates that would take over OHA from the inside and bring a new sense of dignity and professionalism to the tattered agency.

Apoliona, a respected musician and social worker, had no trouble getting elected herself, but her allies didn't fare as well and her calls for reform found little support among OHA's dysfunctional old guard.

With dogged persistence, she won the chairmanship in 2000, lost it briefly in a renewed power struggle in 2001 and finally settled into the top job in 2002 for her current long run.

Apoliona delivered the stability and professionalism she promised by helping to recruit a top-notch staff led by administrator Clyde Namu'o, who came to OHA from a similar position in the state Judiciary, and respecting the knowledge of other trustees who had real-world financial and management experience such as Oswald Stender, Donald Cataluna and Walter Heen.

Whatever your political views about OHA, no public agency has achieved more improvement in the way it operates for the benefit of its constituents.

State Auditor Marion Higa, who isn't given to handing out compliments, recognized OHA's progress in a new audit of the agency issued this month, which said collegiality, competence and strategic planning have replaced backbiting, micro-management and policy by whim.

"In the past, board members often waged political battles to the detriment of the organization and its beneficiaries," Higa said. "Within the last decade, the contentiousness that clouded the atmosphere within OHA's boardroom has progressively cleared. ... We found a much more stable and functional organization that is focused on its strategic mission."

Unstated in the audit but obvious to anybody who visits OHA's offices is that Apoliona and her colleagues achieved this while keeping the agency a uniquely Hawaiian place.

This isn't to say that OHA doesn't have its problems; the Kau Inoa initiative to foster a Hawaiian government has been an expensive dud so far, and the Legislature's rejection of the land settlement OHA negotiated with the Lingle administration last year reflected continued deep distrust of OHA in some elements of the Hawaiian community.

But Apoliona and her group have brought OHA light years from where it was a decade ago, and she stands as a model of a citizen politician who sought office for all the right reasons, didn't let the system corrupt her and persisted until she delivered what she set out to accomplish.

It's especially relevant because the state government in these difficult times is looking a lot like OHA in the bad old days.

The recent Legislature was a disgraceful display of low politics, name-calling, self-serving and zero leadership from either Gov. Linda Lingle or lawmakers as their constituents suffered through the worst economic crisis since statehood.

This bunch has shown again and again that they're simply incapable of rising to the challenges that face us, and it's downright discouraging that those lining up to run next year are looking so far like more of the same.

Hawai'i's political culture, in which those in power are consumed with taking care of special interests that take care of them, will never change until more people with Haunani Apoliona's vision, determination and ethic for public service stand up to lead the way.