Above Image: Trustee Akina with supporters, having saved beneficiaries $44,400 by not spending his trustee allowance. – Photo: Courtesy

Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-LargeBased on a recent Office of Hawaiian Affairs news release, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser published an article titled “OHA Slashes Trustee Allowances.” The story widely reported by local news media, bringing welcome praise to OHA after a highly critical 2018 review of trustee allowances by the state Auditor.

In State Audit Report 18-03, the Auditor criticized the vague policies governing Trustees’ use of their allowances, which was then called the Trustee Sponsorship and Allowance Fund or TSAAF. It was these vague policies that led to questionable expenditures by some Trustees.

In response to the concerns raised by the state Auditor, the OHA Board of Trustees placed a moratorium on the TSAAF, which had been $22,200 per year per Trustee. Then, in May 2019, the Board voted to reinstate a portion of the trustee allowances as a “Trustee Protocol Allowance” or TPA, for $7,200 per year per Trustee, starting in June 2019.

According to the OHA news release, policy amendments included “reducing the trustee allocation from $22,200 to $7,200.” But on closer inspection of the action the Board voted to approve, only a portion of the former TSAAF was limited to $7,200. The Board, in fact, has yet to address the larger “sponsorship” portion of the TSAAF, which allowed individual Trustees to give money to persons or groups of their own choosing.

While limiting the TPA to $7,200 is a step in the right direction, not all are so impressed. Upon hearing the news, a former state legislator wrote the following:

“Aloha Trustees! Though this was popular with the public, by reducing your allowance by two-thirds you have taken away your parity with the legislature. It’s not the amount that was the problem it was the lack of consistency of spending rules like that of the legislature. I hope the amount is enough for you folks.”

The former legislator makes a valid point that the crucial issue in trustee allowance spending was not the amount of money spent, but the way it was spent, and the rules governing the allowance.

That is why, since becoming an OHA trustee in 2016, I gave back my trustee allowance of $22,200 every year, saving our beneficiaries $44,400. I felt strongly that the policy governing the trustee allowance was inadequate, and that the funds could too easily be used to gain improper favor with voters.

So, did OHA really “slash” trustee allowances?

The answer is, we will have to wait and see. If OHA desires to respond fully to the state Auditor with the needed reforms, it will have the opportunity to reduce or eliminate the remaining “sponsorship” portion of the trustee allowances. Beneficiaries will want to stay alert to this issue and perhaps reach out to their Trustees to let them know what they think.