Letter for Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bring back OHA-run programs

With a new year coming up soon I continue to hope that there will be positive changes at OHA. However, change will not occur unless the trustees begin to hold our administration responsible for their actions.

The biggest problem is that the current system encourages trustees to do nothing but show up to vote for action items written by the administration. Many of these action items are delivered to us a few days before a meeting, giving us very little time to properly review them. This is why trustees often feel blindsided at the table by last-minute proposals.

Another problem is that OHA only reacts to problems as they pop up instead of proactively solving issues before they get serious. With the many emergencies we face, our beneficiaries cannot afford trustees who only sit back and passively wait to put out fires.

OHA used to be a hands-on agency with a variety of programs to help our beneficiaries. Whenever a beneficiary would call with a problem, whether it had to do with health, education, housing, or even funds for an emergency, we could call someone in the OHA administration for help. Our beneficiaries were assisted quickly and efficiently by an OHA staffer. That’s why having in-house OHA programs, closely monitored by the trustees, are so important.

Today, OHA mostly operates like a charitable foundation that simply hands out grants and conducts research. Most of the successful OHA-run programs, like Aha ‘Opio and Aha Kupuna, which took years of hard work by past trustees to develop, have been contracted out or quietly discontinued.

OHA also had a very successful housing program through a partnership with Fannie Mae and implemented through First Hawaiian Bank. We not only provided assistance with down payments but also classes on how to control debt in order to qualify for a mortgage. In those productive years OHA ran many programs with just a quarter of our current staff. While farming work out to nonprofits is appropriate in some cases, I believe OHA has gone too far.

A step in the right direction

Rebuilding our programs won’t be quick or easy, but there is hope. For the last eight years, OHA contracted with a third-party “middle man” to administer OHA’s funds to support 17 Hawaiian-focused charter schools. The middle man took a small percentage of the funds as an administrative fee to cover the costs of distributing the fund and ensuring compliance. Since the trustees approved $1.5 million for this school year and next school year, the administrative fee was estimated to be up to $200,000 for each year.

On Oct. 19, 2017, the OHA trustees approved distributing the $3 million directly to the charter schools over the next two years. Amazingly, the trustees finally decided to get rid of the middle man. This means that the administrative fee will now go to the schools. It’s a win-win situation I’m hoping we can replicate with other OHA programs.


The trustees are ultimately accountable for OHA. Therefore it makes more sense to run our programs in-house so that we can monitor them. That way, OHA trustees will be more involved and regularly kept up to date on our programs’ progress. This should be our goal for 2018. I pray that the new year will bring constructive and meaningful change.

Rowena M. Akana, Trustee-at-Large, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Honolulu

  1. Ken Conklin November 14, 2017 5:17 am Reply

    Once per year Rowena Akana produces a commentary which she sends out to all the newspapers in Hawaii, and many of them actually publish it. In previous years those essays have been strident, nasty, contentious, sometimes blatantly racist — as might be expected from her personality. But this year’s item actually has some excellent concepts, cogently expressed with an ‘olu’olu [mellow] attitude. I agree with everything she says here. And I’m wondering: does she have a new colleague on the OHA board whose mana might have tamed her? Time will tell. Anyway, there are great ideas here to help make a bad institution as good as its inherent badness will allow it to be.

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