Maligned department says complaints should go to Legislature

Development / As State lawmakers and community members continue to push for a managerial audit of the State Historic Preservation Division, division officials insist that they’re being blamed for a series of potential problems that would first need to be solved by the Legislature.

Dozens of community members turned out for a meeting with SHPD administrators at Wilson Elementary School on April 14 to air grievances about the division’s operations. Community members voiced concerns over whether ancient burial sites are being adequately protected, the level of transparency and quality of communications between SHPD and the general public, and potential conflicts of interest in Hawaii law, which permits developers to hire archaeological consultants to assess the cultural and historical value of sites on which those developers hope to build.

“This conversation needed to occur, and it’s been a long time coming,” said Rep. Lyla Berg, who facilitated the community forum. “It became very obvious to me that across the state, there are not isolated but very pervasive issues within this division. So, in January, I introduced a resolution to have an audit–a managerial, not financial, audit–of SHPD.”

But SHPD officials insist that they’re caught in the middle of a battle between community members frustrated by the process by which SHPD is required to operate, and a State Legislature whose responsibility it is to change the law if that’s what’s right for Hawaii.

“The process for SHPD right now is the way the law works,” said SHPD Administrator Puaalaokalani Aiu. “People are frustrated about the process, but for us to change our process, it would require a law change. Our process is to operate within the law.”

Shielded by the law

Despite legality, elements of the process that’s in place–like the credentials required for those taking inventories at culturally sacred sites–are what have disgruntled community members most upset.

“This whole process stinks,” said Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board member Gary Weller at the community forum, “I talked to someone [who was taking inventory of archaeological objects at an Oahu development site] from North Carolina. I asked her, ‘What do these things mean at the site?’ She said, ‘I don’t know, the boss just sent me out here to look around. They look like rocks to me.’”

SHPD officials, who grant archaeological permits and have fought for stricter required archaeological licensing in Hawaii, say it’s up to the State to support the changes for which the division has lobbied.

“We wanted the archaeologists to get licensed, and we submitted a bill for that and it got defeated,” said Aiu. “We don’t have any authority over archaeologists. All we do is permit them. If they meet the minimum requirements, we have to permit them. We don’t look at who pays them, the permit is strictly on their qualifications. So how do you address the ethics of archaeology? How do you help them avoid a conflict situation if they’re being paid by developer?”

Weller and others complain that SHPD isn’t taking advantage of the cultural and historical understanding that local kupuna have, including knowledge of the whereabouts of important sites that may be largely unknown because of the lack of a comprehensive, publicly accessible database. One of the major implications of those concerns involves the City’s multi-billion dollar rail project, which some say they fear will be constructed over ground that covers tens of thousands of iwi, or human remains.

Ticking clock

Tension at the division, which operates within the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, has mounted since the March release of a report from the National Park Service that cited a series of operational issues. The National Park Service found the division has too few staffers, an inadequate database of culturally and historically important sites and operates under an outdated historic preservation plan. The Park Service said it is giving SHPD two years to make upgrades before pulling its federal funding.

Berg says the report’s findings are a large part of why she believes the division should be audited at the State level, which she says would enable the Legislature to identify areas in which it can help SHPD meet National Park Service standards.

“I’m astounded there hasn’t been more of a cry for help [from SHPD],” said Berg. “Especially now, with all these issues in our forefront, they haven’t asked the Legislature to help with the law.”

Aiu counters that, as SHPD scrambles to meet the Park Service’s requirements, a managerial audit would only hurt the division.

“I can understand why people might think a management audit might be helpful,” says Aiu. “But we’ve already had two audits that show that we’re under-resourced. We just went through the National Parks Service, which wasn’t an audit but ended up being an audit because we have to fulfill all of those [requirements] within two years. The real issue is I only have a staff of 13 and they can only do so much work because there is only so much time in the day. To have an audit, I would have to pull staffers away to help auditors find records. We would have to let other things drop.”

Berg said that the division, which operates under Hawaii Administrative Rules, lacks–and sorely needs–a procedural handbook tailored to its mission.

“I don’t know of any other State department that’s in this bad of shape, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” said Berg. “There needs to be information so we know what to do but also flexibility to be able to handle individual situations.”

While Aiu argues that the Hawaii Administrative Rules are “actually quite specific,” she acknowledges there are some small gaps in operational process that the division can work to fill. Beyond that, she said it’s up to the State to make broader changes to the law. Aiu also said that clarifying the division’s mission may be the first step toward finding common ground between division administrators and those who claim SHPD isn’t doing its job.

“What does preservation mean?” asked Aiu. “To some people, preservation means you preserve everything that anybody thinks is important. But if you look at SHPD, there’s very clear guidelines on what gets preserved… People may disagree with the eligibility criteria, but for as long as that’s state law, that’s how we decide.”