OHA Policy Should Not Discourage Trustees from Speaking Out


Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

On November 12, the editors of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser urged OHA to scrap its ‘one voice’ policy. What the editors are referring to is OHA’s flawed Trustee Code of Conduct policy, in which individual trustees are prohibited from speaking out in disagreement with a position once it is adopted by the Board. If a Trustee were to do so, that Trustee would risk being disciplined by the Board.

Such a policy could have a chilling effect by silencing OHA Trustees who may disagree with the majority, for fear of retaliation or backlash. But, like state legislators, OHA trustees are public officials, elected with the duty to speak up for what they believe is right, even when that means disagreeing with the majority.

In 2016, nearly 164,000 voters elected me to represent them in office. They voted for me because I promised to work hard to reform OHA and to make it more transparent and accountable. I also promised them I would fight for an independent audit of OHA for fraud, waste and abuse.

While I am pleased to report much success in pursuing these goals at OHA, there has been significant opposition to my efforts. For example, I am on record saying that the independent audit for fraud, waste and abuse has taken far too long to complete. Some have apparently felt these or other comments of mine demonstrate “disloyalty” to the Board.

As a result, an OHA committee, formed to investigate complaints made against me under the flawed Trustee Code of Conduct, issued a one-paragraph report on November 7. Not only did the investigative committee meet behind closed doors, but it never provided me an opportunity to address the complaints before making its report public. The report also failed to state what I had said that was supposedly untrue. Instead, the committee publicly reported I had made “misleading and untrue statements with regard to the CLA audit,” without ever having interviewed me or allowed me to present any defense. Then the committee declared the matter “closed.”

As to taking any official action, the committee conceded OHA had “no recourse” to discipline me. In other words, the committee went through a process in which it knows it can take no action against me but used the occasion to publicly accuse me of wrongdoing.

I believe my reputation has been maligned by this unjust, one-sided process, and that may hinder the performance of my public duties. But the bigger issue is that OHA and its beneficiaries have been harmed. At the least, the OHA Board should reject its committee’s accusation that I made misleading and untrue statements and issue a public apology. Beyond that, the board needs to take the advice of journalists and legal experts and scrap its ‘one voice’ policy.

To serve its beneficiaries, OHA must allow Trustees to speak up without fear of reprisal for what they believe is in the best interests of beneficiaries. That is a fiduciary duty far more important than agreeing with the majority on every issue. In a democracy, and, therefore, on our state elected boards, we must allow for the competition of ideas, so that the best ideas rise to the top. Thus, unjust policies must not be used to intimidate government officials such as OHA Trustees.

It’s like the story of the little boy who declared, “The emperor has no clothes!” He was right, and everyone knew it… but they were afraid to speak out.

E Hana Kākou!/ Let’s work together!

Trustee Akina welcomes your comments and feedback at TrusteeAkina@oha.org