OHA backs down from contesting the TMT sublease

By Ikaika Ramones
The Hawaii Independent
After meeting on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of pursuing a petition OHA filed on July 7 to contest the Thirty Meter Telescope sublease, OHA's trustees have decided the agency will not attempt to block the project.

Sources have reported to the Independent that trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) have decided not to pursue a contested case hearing for the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) project despite voicing concerns over the project during a meeting on Tuesday. The agency charged with defending the interests and resource rights of Native Hawaiians filed a petition to contest the TMT sublease with the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) on July 7.

OHA had previously been on record supporting the telescope project, but voted to intervene in the transaction through a quasi-judicial contested case hearing after reviewing the terms of the University of Hawaii (UH)’s proposed sublease of the summit of Mauna Kea to the TMT Corporation. The BLNR voted to approve the sublease on June 27.

The trustees met on Tuesday to discuss whether the agency should pursue its petition to intervene in the sublease process. During the open portion of the meeting, community members voiced both opposition and support for the TMT project, and some took positions of opposition or support of OHA’s petition to contest the BLNR case.

Peter Lee, representing Clyde Hayashi of the Hawaiʻi Laborers and Employers Cooperation and Education Trust, stated that the TMT is expected, “to put in $3.5 million a year for at least 50 years.” He added, “We have Big Island members who have been unemployed for months, and even years since the economic downturn. This single project will add an economic boost to the community.”

The TMT is also intended to provide $1 million in annual funding to organisations such as the Ke Aliʻi Pauahi Trust, OHA, and the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation through revenue generated from charging other companies for viewing time and from technologies developed out of the project.

The $1 million figure became a central issue: “That is the concern that we really need to know. A million dollars is a million dollars. It really isn’t that much when you look at what the university and others are gleaning from this resource and from this mountain,” said Trustee Rowena Akana. Trustee Akana also stated that in regards to OHA’s fiduciary duty towards beneficiaries, “The University is a very sore spot because the University has taken license to do many, many things that are way out of their jurisdiction, in my view.”

Akana also commented on the autonomy of the University, saying, “With that autonomy, the University has gone wild with a lot of things they have done. This isn’t just the mountain, it’s the oceans, and it’s everything. Ceded lands belong to all of our people, and we have to be fiduciaries. It isn’t about this TMT project really, it just happens to be in the middle of it. The University, really, is the culprit. Until the University is willing to work with OHA, this is only the beginning.”

“What is the basis for the rent?” echoed Trustee Peter Apo, who also raised the issue of how to determine what constitutes “substantial rent” to be paid.

On the issue of determining this sublease rent, Sterling Wong of OHA discussed the meeting between OHA and officers and attorneys of UH around two weeks ago: “They made the same arguments they made through the BLNR [...] nothing they said was basically new information to us.” As for OHA’s position, he stated, “what we told them is what we have testified already.”

Trustee Apo elaborated, “Unfortunately this project falls into a landscape that is larger than this University. Our 20 percent ceded land revenues are frozen at $15.1 million a year for the past I don’t know how many years. We cannot get the state serious about sitting down at the table to work out sort of a global solution to our ceded land trust. This piece of property is an important part of a much larger picture [...] We are absent millions and millions of dollars in past ceded land revenue.”

Multiple testimonies also highlight the over a dozen telescopes already on the mountain, all of which owe millions of dollars in rent.

Cultural practitioners and residents of Hawaiʻi Island also testified against the TMT itself. Kamahana Kealoha discussed Mauna ā Wākea: “You guys know Papa and Wākea are progenitors of the Hawaiian race [...] to place a thirty meter telescope on our sacred kuahu would be no different than placing it on the altar of a church.

“That would be the tallest building built on Hawaiʻi Island to this date. There’s a reason we don’t build that high over there, or anywhere else outside of Oʻahu, Honolulu district,” he continued.

ʻIlima Long commented on the discussion of the revenue itself: “I’ve studied the arguments of those who publicly support the TMT, and it is all based on the belief that we are destitute, and will be destitute without it; that we have no hopes for education, and no hopes for jobs without the telescope. What I see that it does, is that these arguments really capitalize and commodify our struggles.”

She commented on the prospect of $250,000 annual revenue: “These are our lands, and we all know this: $250,000 is scraps.”

The executive session that followed the open portion of the closed-door meeting extended for several hours and did not reconvene to the public after the executive session, as was originally announced and detailed in the agenda. Despite the concerns voiced by trustees including Akana and Apo, by the next day the trustees had apparently decided not pursue the agency’s petition to contest the TMT project.

Nation building committee

Also on the agenda was approval of appointments to an Ad Hoc Committee on Nation Building Public Education and Information.

The committee is charged with developing design and content for educational materials such as adverts, television commercials and a website to educate beneficiaries and the general public on nation building. The committee is also charged with conveying “outcome neutral” information.

The ad hoc committee will consist of: Trustee Peter Apo, Trustee John Waiheʻe IV, Trustee Rowena Akana, Ka Pouhana Crabbe, Kawika Riley, Kehau Abad, Derek Kauanoe and Ryan Gonzales.

As for the time table of the current nation building process under Kanaʻiolowalu, Trustee Collette Machado briefly commented that the trustees voted to pursue the expedited 6-month extension of the timeline rather than the previously entertained 9-month extension.

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