A key Senate committee has approved William Ailā to be deputy director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Ailā’s nomination goes to the full Senate, where he faces opposition to his confirmation.
Nominations for department deputies don’t typically get this much attention. But with the head of Hawaiian Homes, Jobie Masagatani, set to leave the agency in less than a month, all eyes were on Governor David Ige’s deputy nominee William Ailā.
His supporters were largely made up of state agency heads, current and former department employees, and community leaders. They praised Ailā’s long track record of community advocacy and his ability to diffuse tense situations.
“This is no easy undertaking. Believe me,” says outgoing DHHL Director Jobie Masagatani, “Particularly in circumstances that are heartbreaking and there’s simply nothing the department can do. It’s the deputy who has the difficult responsibility to convey this information to the beneficiary.”
Director Masagatani attributed the department’s success in securing the highest level in general funding for operations as well as the completion of more than 700 homestead lots in part to Deputy Ailā.
But those who oppose Ailā’s nomination aired their grievances with the department’s handling of their individual situations. One beneficiary Marvel Mahuka testified wearing a red shirt saying “ʻAʻole Ailā” meaning “No Ailā.”
“I think he’s a wonderful part of our community and it hurts me to talk against another Hawaiian but that Hawaiian will have a job while I will not have a home,” says Mahuka.
Mahuka was joined by a dozen or so Hawaiian homes beneficiaries all wearing red shirts in opposition to Ailā’s confirmation. Testimony from members of this group were all prefaced with comments like, “It’s not personal, I think he’s a great guy,” or “I find Mr. Ailā to be a strong leader in our community, I am not here to impugn the reputation of a very good man.”
But as has been the case for the nearly century-old institution, the hearing became a platform for individuals and groups to express frustration with the department’s lack of progress in awarding homestead lots. According to the department’s latest figures, a little over 9,800 beneficiaries currently reside on Hawaiian Home Lands, and nearly 28,000 are waiting for an award.
A half dozen homestead associations also opposed the nomination expressing frustration with the department and concern over Ailā commitment to DHHL. Last year, Ailā ran for the Board of Trustees for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and lost.
The hearing before the Senate Hawaiian Affairs committee was largely overshadowed by another hearing on the contentious water rights bill. Committee members shuffled in and out over the course of the two-hour hearing, leaving Waiʻanae Senator Maile Shimabukuro to conduct most of the intake on testimony from the more than 50 individuals in attendance.
The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands manages 200,000 acres statewide for the purpose of awarding homestead lots to qualified Native Hawaiians. The state agency is governed by the 1920 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which defines beneficiaries as those with at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood.
‘Ewa Senator Kurt Fevella also expressed his dissatisfaction with the department’s progress in returning Hawaiians to the land.
“The solution is build fast, build cheap and give them the land,” says Fevella, “If you guys can’t then you’re failing the Hawaiian people.”
Senator Fevella was the lone “no” vote in the committee’s 3-1 decision to recommend Ailā’s confirmation to the full Senate. Hilo Senator Kai Kahele who was not present for most of the testimony decided to reserve his vote so that he could properly sift through the testimony.
Ailā has served as DHHL deputy since he was appointed by Governor Ige in 2014. When asked his reaction to clearing this first hurdle, he says, “Even though they spoke against my nomination. They also spoke highly of my personal integrity and their recognition. So today Hawaiians disagreed with aloha and I think we need more of that in the world.”