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Senator takes action on homestead issues

Brian Schatz meets with the Interior Department on fixing problems reported by the Star-Advertiser

By Rob Perez

LAST UPDATED: 4:33 p.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz met with a high-level federal official this week to discuss mismanagement and oversight problems at the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands that were exposed in a just-published Star-Advertiser series.

"I am deeply concerned about a system that is clearly falling short in helping (Native Hawaiian) beneficiaries," Schatz said in a statement to the newspaper. "The rules, procedures and processes of (DHHL) must be transparent, accountable, understandable and consistent."

According to Schatz's office, the senator arranged the meeting with Rhea Suh, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Department of the Interior, specifically to discuss the findings of the newspaper's series.

The Star-Advertiser investigation disclosed numerous problems with a DHHL program in which land not designated for homesteading use or not expected to be developed for years is leased on a month-to-month basis at deeply discounted rates. Among the problems uncovered were selective enforcement of the revocable permits — what the rental agreements are called — and a lack of administrative rules governing how permits are awarded and rents established. In some cases, violations went unchecked for years.

"Earlier this week, I met with (the assistant secretary) to request her personal involvement in ensuring that the Department of the Interior exercises its oversight authority with the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust," Schatz said.

DHHL administers a federally established trust of more than 200,000 acres, and its main mission is to get beneficiaries — those at least 50 percent Native Hawaiian — onto homestead lots to promote self-sufficiency. The Interior Department is the federal agency with oversight responsibility.

The permit program is designed to get tenants onto land that lacks infrastructure and is not ready for homestead use, and the tenants, not the department, are responsible for upkeep of the property. At the same time, the program generates revenue that can be invested in homesteading efforts.

But the agency's slow pace of developing homestead lots — DHHL cites funding challenges — has meant that the permits, designed to be short-term agreements, have over time evolved into long-term ones instead, while more than 26,000 beneficiaries wait for homestead lots to become available.

Schatz said in his statement that he spoke to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who told Schatz that the Abercrombie administration would be taking immediate action to address the problems outlined in the series.

"Both Assistant Secretary Suh and Gov. Abercrombie assured me of their commitment to solve these problems, and I will stay personally engaged on the critical issue through the relevant committee structure of Congress," Schatz said.

Abercrombie, in a statement to the newspaper, said the "new DHHL administration is committed to reviewing and, where applicable, altering its existing policies."

He said the points raised in the series are "legacy issues, which are already being addressed by DHHL. I appointed DHHL chairperson Jobie Masa­ga­tani to improve the department, and I'm confident that she and the DHHL staff will bring any necessary changes by managing DHHL properly, setting guidance and providing leadership support."

Jessica Kershaw, an Interior Department spokes­woman, said in a statement that her agency "takes our obligations to the Native Hawaiian community very seriously. We appreciate the opportunity to work with the state of Hawaii and the Native Hawaiian community to ensure the health of the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust."

Masagatani declined comment for this story.

As noted in the series, DHHL Deputy Director Darrell Young, responding to the newspaper's findings, said his agency was instituting a 60- to 90-day moratorium on issuing new permits and would review all existing ones — about 180 — to determine whether they should be continued, modified or terminated. He also said the agency would look for ways to make the permit awards more transparent and productive, and would check the existing agreements for compliance.

The issue of federal oversight of DHHL historically has been unclear, some say.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hana­busa said in a statement to the newspaper that she didn't think Interior "has ever shown that it believes it has oversight responsibility over the day-to-day operations" of DHHL.

But as new laws have been enacted and funding provided, the Interior Department has recognized it has a role to play, especially with the creation of its Office of Native Hawaiian Relations, Hana­busa wrote.

She added that the federal government's relationship with Native Hawaiians is being developed, including recognition to assist beneficiaries in accessing programs and achieving greater success on their homesteads.

"This may result in Interior taking a different view with regard to its obligations to the beneficiaries," Hana­busa said.

Asked whether she believed federal oversight is sufficient, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono noted the tremendous responsibility DHHL has in managing its trust relationship with Native Hawaiians.

"The Star-Advertiser's recent series on the department's programs and practices raised some concerns which I hope the department will address appropriately," Hirono said in her statement to the newspaper.

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