Hawai‘i’s Scrutiny: Fair or Fickle?

When it comes to how leaders in Hawai‘i are treated, the first rule that one should know is that no two leaders of anything in Hawai‘i are treated the same, no matter what their position.

This blogger came up with this conclusion after witnessing the treatment of three leaders of Hawai‘i over the past couple of years. In two of them, the observations are much more recent – the last two to three months.

Who we are talking about here in this blog post is the leaders of the University of Hawai‘i, David Lassner; the Chief Executive Officer of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART), Lori Kahikina; and General Kenneth Hara, Adjutant General for the State of Hawai‘i.

Each of them holds a high profile, and in at least the case of the Adjutant General, power that could widely transform how Hawai‘i works in the case of an emergency, at the snap of a finger. But when it comes to how the powers that be or the general population looks at them, you will find that each has been given a custom-made treatment.

Here is that observation

The University of Hawai‘i President David Lassner

David Lassner
PC: University of Hawaii Leadership webpage

Since being named the president of the University of Hawai‘i in July 2014, David Lassner has navigated the school through the upsets that the last leadership left, implementing immediate and widespread changes due to COVID in March 2020, the pivot of key sports from state facilities like Aloha Stadium to the T.C. Ching complex, and navigating various internal upheavals throughout all of these events.

One might assume that, based on this list, his upcoming retirement as President would be viewed as a time for positive reflection on his term and the progress he has brought to the school.

Yeah, fat chance.

Instead, in a very public way, Lassner has been criticized by the State Legislature for various “sins” that, in some cases, have a more tangential than direct link. While it is true that no leader is perfect, it seems that even stubbing his toe and yelling “ow” will elicit a letter from State Senators or various pressure groups for him to walk it off and pipe down.

Some of the criticisms, including spending and administrative pay raises and the handling of the Thirty-Meter Telescope on Hawai‘i Island are as much issue drive as they are politics-driven, and if handled differently, would have potentially elicited different reactions from the various groups that make their opinions known on such things.

But because he has chosen not to be combative, to certain groups that seem to needle him in trying to get a rise out of him, his legacy may be initially written by those who have the most to gain by massively dissing him.

It’s not unnoticed by this blogger that those interested in becoming president after Lassner steps down are taking note of the current efforts to oppose him. The expectation is that criticism of the president will continue regardless of who holds the position. This makes the job less peaceful and potentially less appealing to qualified candidates.

Chief Executive Officer of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART), Lori Kahikina

Just like with Lassner, Kahikina stepped into the role of CEO of HART with something of a honeymoon attached to the hire. With upsets with past CEOs and the increasing irritation of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) when it came to leadership, Kahikina was a veteran of the City, but a new face for this high-profile project.

And, it seemed, the honeymoon got extended a few times since her hire in January 2021. With a new Mayor and a new idea of what the rail system would be for the people of Honolulu, she proceeded to fix sticky problems with the project itself, stabilize the budget that seemed to be increasing every few months, and got the project to the point where the first phase of it got running in late June 2023.

And, by the way, she also was able to get monies released from the Federal Government that was on hold due to questions FTA had about its viability, among other things. So you would think that, past the honeymoon, the leaders of Honolulu would look favorably upon Kahikina, and maybe extend her contract beyond the end of 2024.

Well, in shaking a metaphorical Magic 8 Ball, the answer back is “Outlook is not so good”.

Once again, the leaders with power over the project are the reason for the mistreatment of Kahikina. Recently, there was a public disagreement between Kahikina and Colleen Hanabusa, the Rapid Transit Board Chair, and former Congresswoman, regarding the departure of a key project manager.

This public spat has raised the question of whether Kahikina would be kept on as CEO, with speculation focused on whether she should be fired and someone else brought in or kept on and her contract extended.

But unlike Lassner, who has quiet cheerleaders, Kahikina got a very public boost recently from Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who wrote to the HART board of his support of Kahikina, and to direct the board to resolve its differences offline. It would seem that Kahikina, in this case, is getting support against what could be seen as one-way bullying (at least in Kahikina’s view)

And that might be a nice thing considering that, on its face, the way she is being treated as a leader, could be considered miserable.

The Adjutant General of the State of Hawai‘i, Kenneth Hara

While both Lassner and Kahikina are slogging through, the retirement notice of State of Hawai‘i Adjutant General Kenneth Hara is truly the opposite.

Instead of being shown the door and being told “Don’t let the door hit you….” on exit, his retirement notice came with nothing less than praise and an extended interview on Hawai‘i News Now, highlighting his service to Hawai‘i.

And in general, if one looks at the literature out there General Hara is more-or-less seen as someone who has done very little wrong, kept Hawai‘i safe, and was able to handle the storms of COVID and the Lahaina wildfire.

However, looking at the replacement for Hara, one should note how important the Adjutant General is to Hawai‘i becoming more focused. And this is where, while we might praise the man in his departure, should the state be more critical about his replacement – Gen. Stephen Logan.

So far, in the news, the newly named Adjutant General has elicited zero noise. And this is for a person who could if the situation arises, become the military governor of Hawai‘i in the event of martial law.

While it’s not automatic, there’s a strong possibility the Adjutant General would be considered for the role. The final decision would come from the appointing authority, which could be the Governor or a higher military official depending on the situation.

That is pretty hard-core leadership that they may have to wield. However, no word of this seriousness has come out in the announcement that Logan will become the new Adjutant General of the State of Hawai‘i.

Meanwhile, two other people who hold much less serious positions, but are leaders in Hawai‘i nonetheless, are getting their reputations, legacies, and even their jobs, picked on right and left.

So, a question to leave with the reader, should leadership in Hawai’i be a popularity contest, or should it be judged on results and the ability to navigate complex situations? Should leadership in Hawai‘i for one not be the same as for the others? And are we going down a road by which the leader with the stronger “political tribe” survives better than the one with a weaker tribe?