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Digging out of chaos

The backlogged office charged with overseeing Hawaii's historic treasures must get its act together or face losing $550,000 in federal funds

By Vicki Viotti

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:23 p.m. HST, Aug 05, 2011


The goal of the present-day State Historic Preservation Division is to get over its difficult past so staff can focus on their job chronicling and protecting history into the future.

That may sound like a flippant description of the division's current struggle, but it does fit. The office, part of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, oversees actions that affect Hawaii's historic resources, everything from the iconic structures of Chinatown to Hawaiian artifacts that can be unearthed in developments around the state.

Every time the ground is disturbed, something can turn up, which means SHPD has to clear dozens of permits every month.

And these can be high-profile cases: Clashes over burials and historic sites at the Big Island Hokulia project, the Keeaumoku Wal-Mart store and a private home on Kauai all dominated headlines. So will the state's navigation of potential conflicts over ancient Hawaiian remains sure to turn up along the 20-mile route of Honolulu's planned rail project.

THE DIVISION has fallen behind and now it has run up against a hard deadline to get its work backlog under control. The National Park Service, a federal office that oversees historic-preservation grants in 50 states and eight U.S. territories, has threatened to yank up to $550,000 in federal funds that Hawaii currently receives unless the state division meets certain benchmarks.

The fear of losing a larger sum partially explains why DLNR gave a grant topping $186,000 to Solutions Pacific LLC, a private consulting firm tasked to help fulfill a two-year schedule of corrective actions it was first issued in March 2010.

For a division beset with chronic staffing shortages that have only grown worse in recent years, this meant new directors who took office in December faced the task of hiring up and clearing all the hurdles by June 2012.

The decision was made: Hire a consultant to help.

Critics charged that it was unnecessary: The feds had already spelled out what needed to happen. But DLNR Deputy Director Guy Kaulukukui defended the move. Even with the funds to hire in hand, he said, meeting the federal deadline looked increasingly unlikely, and meeting it was what counts.

RAY SOON, the Solutions Pacific head, is a former state official and a supporter of Gov. Neil Abercrombie; he's listed as an officer in the administration's transition nonprofit, New Day Hawaii. Some eyebrows were raised over that, and over his addition of a subcontractor, former SHPD chief Don Hibbard, who left the division in 2002 under the critical glare of a state audit.

But Soon, who can list Department of Hawaiian Home Lands director and member of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation among his own credentials, countered that Hibbard had many years with the division and can help identify trouble spots in short order.

Beyond satisfying the Parks Service, Soon said he hopes to help with recruitment and identify why it's so hard to recruit and retain qualified staff.

Some observers have an idea, though. Moses Haia, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. and veteran of several legal battles over historic preservation, cited the morale problem that's tough to ignore.

"If you're looking for people that have credentials in archaeology, those are the kind of people who are going to look at this and say, ‘I'm not sure I want to get involved in this, given what's happening.'"

***

IT'S NOT AS IF they didn't know what they were getting into. Problems — primarily with staffing, but also with high-profile controversies over land use — had made the State Historic Preservation Division one of government's notorious hot spots. And not hot in a good way.

The new chiefs of SHPD and its parent agency, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, also knew how much work SHPD shoulders: Given the laws protecting architecture, artifacts and the ubiquitous ancient Hawaiian burials, it means staff reviews virtually every permit where the ground is disturbed.

But they hadn't realized how little time they had to fix things, said Guy Kaulukukui, the department's deputy director.

"When (Director) William (Aila) and I started in December, obviously this was a big issue for the both of us, it was a big issue for the governor; he was hearing about it quite a bit as a candidate on the campaign trail," Kaulukukui said. "So we're stepping in December, staring down a June 2012 deadline, so we basically had 18 months at that point in time to ensure that the division is in compliance with the National Park Service requirements."

That deadline was when the Park Service wanted the state to correct all the areas where SHPD fell out of compliance with its historic preservation program the states perform with the help of a federal grant. It's big help: Unless Hawaii can meet the bar again (see adjoining story for a summary of the main points), it stands to lose more than a half-million dollars to run the program.

These were big stakes, Kaulukukui said, adding that it made sense to invest about $186,000 in a special contract to make sure that didn't happen.

"As we start to look into it, what we realized is that the division's also severely understaffed," he added. "We came to the conclusion, given its track record over the last couple years of not being able to increase staff but actually losing staff, that unless there was some external infusion of resources, particularly human resources, we weren't going to be in compliance, we weren't going to make it."

THE CONTRACT, which started July 1, was awarded to Solutions Pacific LLC, which was the only qualified bidder. It's a strategic planning firm headed by Ray Soon, joined by his daughter Rebecca and one other employee. The elder Soon is best known locally for his past work as director of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Kamehameha vice president for communications and a founder of the Council on Native Hawaiian Advancement.

But he learned about how the federal wheels turn during his nine years as a member of the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a panel that gives Congress input on actions that can affect historic sites. Under its federal contract, SHPD deals with the same federal law as it affects Hawaii, Soon said.

It does a lot more than that, and it's the total burden shouldered by the agency, as well as chronic understaffing, that has pushed it to the brink of the federal failure.

"The magnitude of the situation we entered was that the division was facing a backlog of about 400 reports and permits," Kaulukukui said. "Four hundred! There was no way the existing staff could conduct daily operations and work down the backlog."

The deputy is backed up in this conclusion by Larry Oaks, an agent for the National Parks Service who came out of retirement to assist Hawaii with its compliance problem last September.

"Ten years ago the state of Hawaii was helped in doing their share by a state appropriation that funded 35 positions" for SHPD. Oaks said. "When I arrived, when you counted everyone taking a breath, there were 12 or 13 people here. And it's clear that 12 or 13 people can't handle this. The state of Hawaii has one of the most stringent and well-designed historic preservation laws in the nation."

WHY, THEN, is the state agency having such a hard time? Oaks believes that in part it's because elsewhere in the country, the emotional issues surrounding burials and native artifacts are often handled by tribal authorities, leaving the state office freer to attend to things the Park Service deems essential. Oaks categorized the mandatory federal duties as follows:

» Surveying historic resources and keeping a current inventory of them.

» Keeping tabs on the National Register of Historic Places, the current sites as well as proposed additions.

» Making sure projects comply with federal and state laws protecting historic resources.

» Certifying local (county) governments to ensure historic preservation at that level, too.

» Developing a current Statewide Historic Preservation Plan for how the state will approach this mission going forward.

Doing this work can be fraught with conflict, and the problems have vexed several governors. Toward the end of the Lingle administration, the division reportedly was down to six archaeologists who were trying to keep up with 60-90 permits and reports each month.

But even when the division was fully staffed, there were problems. A December 2002 report from the Office of the State Auditor excoriated SHPD because of "untimely and inconsistent archaeological reviews" that caused costly delays to various developments. It cited various examples of lax oversight and operations and the "cavalier management style" of the administrator at the time, Don Hibbard, who left office soon afterward.

Hibbard, who could not be reached for comment last week, will make a brief reappearance as a subcontractor Soon hired to serve as part of a professional team that also includes archaeologist Hal Hammatt and architect Tonia Moy. Questions of Hibbard's past management style are less material here than institutional knowledge of the office, Soon said, and Hibbard was there for 20 years.

Soon said his team will focus on the compliance tasks and on the recruitment and retention of staff. The crisis of morale has been so longstanding that proposing solutions will also be a goal, he added.

ON THE OUTSIDE, people such as attorney Moses Haia, who now heads the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., say they hope this succeeds. Too often in the recent past, the crush of workload and pressure from developers have overtaken the agency's concern for its primary mission, he said.

"It really became clear to me that the view was ‘this bureaucratic red tape' was in the way of development and our economy," Haia said.

Kaulukukui's aim is to see the office function more proactively, gaining a firmer grasp of where resources are and helping developers anticipate at an earlier stage what needs to happen.

It's part of DLNR's goal of becoming less of a regulator and more of a problem-solver, he said.

"We want to make sure historic and cultural sites are protected, No. 1," he said. "But we also want to put into place a process, so that development doesn't threaten them. You work up front to mitigate as many potential problems as possible, before you put a shovel in the ground."






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