Bones of Contention

Nearly 20 years ago, the State Historic Preservation Division was created to guard Hawaii's history in the face of rapid development. Today, Hawaiian activists, archaeologists and even developers say it's not doing its job.


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What’s Happening?

SHPD administrator Melanie Chinen has an answer for every criticism leveled at her office. It’s no surprise, considering the numerous news reports over the past year documenting the agency’s troubles, including one editorial calling for her replacement.

There are several valid reasons 22 people have resigned since she took over the division, Chinen insists. When she became administrator, she instituted major policy changes—from requiring workers to account for time off to setting quotas on the number of archaeological reviews they needed to complete—and some employees were stuck in their old ways, she says. Other staff members, including some of her own hires, could not handle the stress of dealing with such a thankless job—the constant calls from impatient developers, the emotional pleas from Hawaiian families, even physical threats from the public.

“It takes a toll,” Chinen says. “There’s a high burnout. We believe that even given staff working to the highest level, there’s going to be a need for additional resources.”

Like every other state agency, SHPD has to beg the governor and the Legislature for funding. The division receives $1 million from the state—less money than any other division in the Department of Land and Natural Resources—and nearly $500,000 from the federal government. Most of the total $1.5 million goes to SHPD’s 24 positions.

"Many nights, I have left this office, crying, thinking, I cannot do this anymore.  I am tired, I am burnt out." —Melanie Chinen

The division’s budget has barely budged over the past five years, Chinen notes, despite its burgeoning workload. By the end of this year, she expects that her office will have received nearly 6,000 documents for review, compared with the 4,000 she saw in 2004, the year she took over the division.

Chinen has lobbied every year for more staff positions for the division. But, to no avail. The usual bureaucratic red tape makes it hard for her to fill even the positions she does have. “This is how ridiculous it is, every time I want to fill a position, I have to get the governor’s personal approval,” she says. “That’s how the system is so bogged down.” 

Chinen says she has still managed to make progress on staffing and other issues at the division. As of late September, she had sent out job offers for all but two of the vacant positions, and planned to reopen the division’s Big Island office by the end of the year.

To help reduce the backlog of permits, Chinen is working with the counties and state departments to determine which plans actually need to come to the division for review. State law requires that all local government projects go through SHPD, but Chinen wants to streamline that number. She says it’s a waste of time for her staffers to evaluate plans to install new streetlights or repave a highway. 

But critics say the problem with SHPD may be Chinen herself. During a confirmation hearing for DLNR chairman Peter Young in April, three former archaeologists of the division testified before a Senate committee. They questioned why Young would hire someone with no background in historic preservation to head the Historic Preservation Division, and then continue to support her after receiving numerous complaints about her management style.

Former archaeology branch chief David Brown called Chinen “verbally abusive.” Brown, whose contract was not renewed at the division, presented his work journal to the Senate committee, in which he wrote: “Melanie gave tips on handling employees. You want to ‘fuck with their minds’—set up a meeting, and not give any idea on what the meeting will be about. She says it’s mean, but effective, and will evoke fear.”

The testimonies from the former employees caused one legislator to remark, “I wasn’t aware that Ms. Chinen was up for confirmation.” Nevertheless, they made an impression on senators, who did not confirm Young for a second term.

“[The hearing] was not supposed to be about Ms. Chinen, but with this many incidents, there was a question about whether the head of the department was doing enough to address the root of the problem,” says state Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. “Many of us felt like not enough action was taken.”

"Melanie gave tips on handling employees—set up a meeting, and not give any idea on what [it's] about.  She says it's mean, but effective." —David Brown

Chinen dismisses most of her critics as disgruntled former employees or others who want to use the division for purposes other than historic preservation, including anti-development campaigns. “I’m here for the people,” she says. “I am not here for the politics.”

As for doubts about her qualifications for the job, Chinen acknowledges that she has no previous experience in historic preservation. She has a master’s in political science from the University of Hawaii and spent 12 years in state government, working for the legislative Finance Committee, the state auditor’s office and Lingle cabinet members Bob Awana and Linda Smith. She was selected to head the division mainly because of her management experience. After all, she had helped audit SHPD. If she already knew what was wrong, she could fix it.

“I thought maybe I could make a bigger difference here,” Chinen says. “Coming to the division, it made me realize that it’s very easy as an auditor to identify what should be done, but when you’re actually working in operations, it’s not so easy to fix.”

Most other complaints about the division are exaggerations, Chinen says. For example, one newspaper quoted a Hawaiian activist as saying that there were “thousands and thousands” of Hawaiian remains in the division’s care that needed to be reburied.

“That is absolutely untrue,” she says. “It’s more like a few hundred.” Plus, one of her staff members is now working with landowners and descendants to rebury those remains and document their locations, which is a time-consuming process. 

She says she’s tired of having to defend herself. There are times when she has considered resigning from the job, she says.  “Many nights, I have left this office, crying, thinking I cannot do this anymore. I am tired, I am burnt out,” she says. “My children don’t want me to be here. It hurts my whole family.”

What keeps her from leaving?

“I went to Maryknoll High School, and the motto there is, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’” she says. “It certainly is not fair, but in order to survive in this job, you have to be confident in what you’re doing. I knew people would try to destroy me, but the type of leader I am, my personal comfort does not come before this position.”

She applies that personal philosophy to the intense criticism she’s faced over the Ward Village Shops project. When more than 30 sets of remains turned up in the footprint of the planned condo, she ordered General Growth to preserve the bones in place because of their large number. But in the area where Whole Foods is slated, she has allowed the developer to remove more than a dozen sets of remains and proceed with construction. 

The media, Hawaiian activists and archaeologists have blasted her decisions, but she stands by all of her choices. “We get criticized for being inconsistent and shutting down the project too late in the process, but it’s based on the information we have at that time,” Chinen says. “You’re always dealing with the unknown.”


A Timeline

  • In accordance with NAGPRA, the U.S. Marines repatriate more than 1,500 Mokapu remains, which had been stored at the Bishop Museum, to several Hawaiian claimants.
  • Archaeological work and construction turn up more than 70 sets of remains at Hokulia, 1,550-acre high-end residential project in Kona. Protect Keopuka sued the developer over its treatment of Hawaiian remains and cultural sites and other land use issues, leading to a settlement in 2006.
  • General Growth pays $250 million to acquire Victoria Ward Ltd. in 2002 and begins the redevelopment of the 65-acre retail complex, which includes Ward Warehouse, Ward Centre, Ward Village Shops, the Farmer’s Market and the Ward Entertainment Center.
  • State auditor Marion Higa criticizes SHPD in an audit documenting a range of problems, including poor management, inconsistent reviews and misuse of state resources.
Continued on next page...


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