Kaleikini gets tepid endorsement from Senate panel: Hawaiian Homes Commission appointee confirmation proceeds to full Senate

  • Michael Kaleikini by Zoom fields questions Tuesday from the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee on his nomination to the Hawaiian Homes Commission.

After grilling Michael Kaleikini for about an hour, the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee on Tuesday agreed to recommend his confirmation to the Hawaiian Homes Commission to the full Senate.

The East Hawaii seat, one of two commission seats on the island, sat vacant for more than a year before Gov. David Ige selected Kaleikini for an interim position six months ago.

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Committee members weren’t unanimous in their approval. One senator voted no and two voted with reservations, leaving only Committee Chairwoman Maile Shimabukuro and Vice Chairman Kai Kahele voting a straight yes. Most of the concerns were about the selection process, not Kaleikini’s qualifications, committee members said.

“On the nominee himself, I am a complete yes; on the process itself, I am a complete no,” said Sen. Les Ihara, an Oahu Democrat who voted yes with reservations.

Still, a flurry of testifiers submitting written comments urged the committee to vote no, saying Ige had better candidates to choose from. Testifiers living on Hawaiian homelands or on the waiting list said Kaleikini, who doesn’t live on homelands and hadn’t attended commission meetings prior to his appointment, is out of touch with beneficiaries.

Bills to allow homestead associations to have more input into the selection of commissioners have consistently failed in the Legislature. Beneficiaries often complain the commission won’t put them on the agenda to address problems. And problems abound, with almost 45,000 families on the waiting list for homelands, water, roads and other infrastructure lagging and structures in disrepair.

“I feel that I can help out in moving the department forward and improving the rehabilitation of East Hawaii and hopefully with West Hawaii and the rest of the state,” Kaleikini said. “The past six months have really opened my eyes to the challenges and opportunities of Hawaiian homelands.”

Kaleikini is currently senior director of Puna Geothermal Venture, where he’s worked since 1991. That position, coupled with his position on the executive committee of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board that backed a rocket launch facility on land near homesteads, garnered opposition.

Appearing before the commission via Zoom, Kaleikini said the development board went through the process of vetting the rocket launch site and the landowner pulled out after community opposition. He said he would continue that process on other sites if proposals come before the board.

“The outreach, the community involvement, that is critical,” he said. “If not, a project like that will be doomed.”

Kahele gave Kaleikini a lot of homework before he ultimately agreed to support him. He wanted Kaleikini to study the Hawaiian Homes Act, the minutes of prior commission meetings and the writings of Prince Kuhio. Kahele said Kaleikini should spend time with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands staff and learn how the agency works.

“You really have to take the time and effort,” Kahele said, noting that the appointment expires in June, 2021. “We don’t need just a warm body in the seat. … He has his marching orders and I encourage you to fulfill them.”

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Sen. Kurt Fevella, an Oahu Republican, voted no. He said he wrote a letter to Ige protesting the nomination because he believes Kaleikini was hand-picked by Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman William Aila despite more qualified candidates who had applied. With so many neglected problems on Hawaii Island and statewide, he objects to “rubber-stamping,” he said.

“Nothing against the candidate,” Fevella said. “It’s the nation of Aila … destruction of Hawaiian homes and him being destructive of everything he touches.”

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