HILO — The Hawaiian Homes Commission took the first step Monday to hire an outside attorney to put a dollar figure on what the state owes Native Hawaiian beneficiaries for land, including the Maunakea Access Road, that was the subject of a 1995 state law.
The state claims the access road was transferred and is now under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Transportation, but beneficiaries question whether a proper land exchange was ever completed.
Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman William Aila appointed an investigative committee including himself, West Hawaii Commissioner David Kaapu, Kauai Commissioner and Oahu Commissioner Pauline Namuo. The action, announced in the agenda, didn’t require commission action. The committee is slated to begin its work Wednesday.
The committee is charged with reviewing selection criteria and other issues relating to hiring a private counsel focused on ensuring beneficiaries receive compensation in land or money for outstanding claims surrounding 1,328 acres, including 346 acres of roads, that were supposed to be resolved by Act 14 in 1995.
The Maunakea Access Road issue proved especially troublesome to scores of testifiers at a meeting Monday, several of whom used their 3 minutes for songs, chants and prayers.
“Don’t act like you don’t see us while we’re marching in the streets in Waikiki,” said 19-year-old Mekealohapumehauahemolele Howard of Oahu, singing to a tune she played on her ukulele. “Don’t act like you can’t see us freezing on the mauna.”
Among the 30 or so testifiers was Keoni John Turalde, who trundled his wheelchair up to the podium to speak. Turalde said he was among those arrested for blocking the access road during a July sweep that arrested 35 protesters, who said they were protecting the mountain from construction equipment brought up to begin work on the Thirty Meter Telescope.
“I have been waiting to get land from DHHL for 40 years and my mother died waiting on the list,” Turalde said. “How can you let the state arrest me on Hawaiian Home Lands when it’s your No. 1 job to provide land to me and other Hawaiians?”
DHHL employee Halealoha Ayau, in an emotional turn at the podium, announced his resignation as a staffer who’s been in charge of water quality testing for the department. Ayau renewed his vow to sue the state DOT and the attorney general over a breach of trust for not compensating Hawaiians for their land and for arresting Hawaiians on Maunakea.
“Working for the department, (I had) the sacred duty of doing the people’s work. That’s what I signed up for and I can no longer do that,” Ayau told the commission. “The state is compromising your abilities.”
He sat down to a standing ovation from the more than 200 in the audience.
Aila several times had to bang the gavel to bring the room back to order, as emotions ran hot among the crowd.
“If you are going to be unruly, then the commission is going to recess again and again and again,” Aila said.
One testifier suggested the chairman put his hammer to use building homes for Hawaiians. Some 28,000 Native Hawaiian families — 9,000 of those on Hawaii Island — are currently on the waiting list for homesteads.
Former Puna Councilwoman Emily Naeole began her 3 minutes with a prayer, urging everyone to remain calm.
“Why these people acting a little bit huhu, it’s because it’s been going on way too long,” Naeole said.
Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy agreed. The problem in East Hawaii is exacerbated because the East Hawaii seat on the commission has been vacant for more than a year. She urged the commission to prevail upon Gov. David Ige to make an appointment.
“We hear all too often they feel disadvantaged,” Lee Loy said. “They feel forgotten.”