OHA Needs a Watchdog!


Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-LargeI love the people of OHA, especially its beneficiaries and employees. But OHA is government, and like all government, OHA needs a watchdog.

It has been my commitment to serve OHA’s beneficiaries and the public as a watchdog. OHA’s land and wealth constitute a trust for the benefit of the Hawaiian people. My mission is to protect the trust, grow the trust, and use the trust to meet the needs of the Hawaiian people. Key to protection of the trust is the watchdog function.

A watchdog makes sure that OHA’s resources and power are not being used for improper purposes. While there are great purposes for which OHA does use its power, we must keep in mind the words of England’s Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

That’s why I’ve pushed for the independent audit of OHA and its LLCs for fraud, waste and abuse, and have been vocal about it taking too long.

That’s also why I praised the 2019 state Legislature for holding back funding until OHA completes the audit the Legislature has called for. While I believe that the Legislature should not tell OHA what to spend, OHA, as a government agency, must be held accountable for the way it spends. And it is the job of the Trustees to ensure that every penny is stewarded according to the highest standards of law and ethics.

An important way the watchdog function is performed is when Trustees speak out as individuals, even when they are a minority voice on the Board. That’s a hard thing to do, especially when human relationships are involved and there is a genuine desire to kōkua. But Trustees carry a fiduciary duty to beneficiaries to speak up, when necessary, against policies or actions they believe are not in the best interest of beneficiaries.

For example, on June 6, I cast the lone NO vote when the Trustees voted to go into executive session to deal with “… alleged violations of the Trustee Code of Conduct involving allegations that the Trustee breached the duty of care and loyalty to OHA and the duty to obey and support the Board’s decisions.” As I stated then, this matter should be dealt with in public, given the rights of the Trustee in question and given that nothing in the action item (BOT #19-09) indicated a personnel matter or a criminal offense. While no specific complaint was mentioned, the Trustee is alleged to have violated “the duty to obey and support the Board’s decisions.”

That phrase could be interpreted very broadly. If it means that an OHA Trustee cannot publicly disagree with Board decisions, then it would hinder any Trustee from functioning as a watchdog. That would be a terrible loss to beneficiaries, because OHA Trustees are, after all, elected officials entrusted with speaking out on behalf of those whom they represent. City Council members, state legislators and Congressional delegates are expected to take positions, debate, and when their consciences lead them, oppose the ideas of others. In a democracy, public officials do not give up their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Indeed, they must exercise their First Amendment rights in order to do their job.

The OHA Board has every right to expect Trustees to exercise orderly conduct and courtesy at board meetings, but it has no right to force a Trustee to agree with the majority nor to prevent a Trustee from speaking out freely in public. For the sake of all beneficiaries, OHA needs a watchdog – one with the courage to challenge others when necessary!