By: TRUSTEE ROWENA AKANA
Source: September 2008 Ka Wai Ola o OHA Column
`Ano`ai kakou… OHA gets millions from the state general fund each year, which OHA matches through trust fund dollars, which totaled about $2.8 million in 2005. Most of these funds goes to three nonprofit organizations that benefit Native Hawaiians — Na Pua No’eau, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation (NHLC) and Alu Like. In 2005, Na Pua No’eau received about $700,000 of its $1.5 million budget from OHA. Roughly $600,000 went to the NHLC, which represented more than half of its operating budget. In 2006, OHA earmarked $750,000 toward Alu Like programs. All of these amounts do not include separate grants, contracts, and programs funded by OHA that are outside of these organizations’ budgeted appropriations.
While I applaud the mission of these organizations and the dedication of their employees to better the conditions of Native Hawaiians, OHA does not have the resources to fund these programs indefinitely. Add to that the fact that our economy is slowing and OHA’s Native Hawaiian Trust Fund portfolio has fallen to approximately $375 million (as of June 30, 2008) and the outlook seems even more doubtful.
Given these tough economic times, OHA needs to find a way to help these organizations become more self-sufficient and less of a drain on our budget. Some organizations, such as the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, should be completely eliminated from our budget. Funds allocated for legal representation for our beneficiaries should be given to more than one firm so that they may get the best representation they can.
Despite our generous assistance to NHLC over the years, we are constantly hearing complaints from the community regarding NHLC’s treatment of our beneficiaries and the quality of their customer service. Things have gotten so bad lately, that it now seems as if a beneficiary is appearing at almost every meeting to complain about the way NHLC has treated them.
OHA has even been forced to set-up a special fund to handle cases that were rejected by the NHLC, which we call our “conflict fund.” However, in order to qualify for these funds, our beneficiaries have to go through the bureaucratic hassled of first getting a letter from NHLC stating that they cannot take the case. Unfortunately, NHLC seems to be dragging their feet on getting these letters out. For example, one beneficiary claimed that NHLC refused, despite repeated requests, to give them a letter stating they could not represent them because of a conflict of interest.
In another case, a beneficiary in Hilo claimed that NHLC dropped their case at the eleventh-hour. This forced the beneficiary to scramble and find other assistance in order to save her case. There are also several beneficiaries who have reported that NHLC has not responded to them regarding the status of their cases, even after years have gone by. It seems as if the NHLC is keeping certain cases “ongoing” so they can keep them on their books to justify additional funding.
Several trustees have also brought up concerns that the NHLC’s lawsuits against the Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL) on the island of Hawaii will have detrimental affects on OHA’s ability to develop affordable housing. Currently, NHLC is trying to stop DHHL from leasing out lands in order to generate revenue through several lawsuits. Clearly, they are not looking at the larger picture – how can DHHL operate and assist their beneficiaries without more revenue? All the lawsuits are doing is creating a negative sense in the community at-large that “Hawaiians are suing Hawaiians.”
Clearly, if NHLC wants OHA to continue finding their organization, they must conduct a major overhaul. Our administrator has also suggested that they send a report on their caseload to OHA on a weekly or bi-monthly basis so that we are no longer blindsided at the board table. I would require that their continued funding depends on it.
Employee Exodus to Date for 2008
On August 8, 2008, our Chief Financial Officer (CFO), a senior officer in OHA’s administration, resigned from his position effective October 8, 2008. So for those trustees who insist on taking a Pollyanna attitude and insist everything is OK, I would like to remind them of the glaring fact that in the last six-months, OHA’s fiscal department has lost: (1) an accountant, who wrote a letter to trustees saying she felt she was unfairly terminated; (2) our Comptroller, who moved to another state, and (3) our CFO, who left while OHA is in the midst of an audit and finishing up our upcoming total operating budget.
In total, there have been at least six staff members who have left OHA by choice or otherwise this year.