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Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees rescind support of telescope, but take neutral stance

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HONOLULU — Trustees for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs on Thursday voted to rescind support for building a giant telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea, but did not outright oppose the project.

The board of trustees in 2009 voted to support Mauna Kea as the site for the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. Amid mounting opposition after 31 protesters blocking the construction site were arrested earlier this month, the board held a special meeting Thursday to revisit its stance.

Trustees could have voted to maintain support, oppose the project or rescind the previous position and take a neutral stance. After hours of listening to public comments for and against the project, some trustees said they were ready to vote for rescinding and opposing, but ultimately joined others to only rescind.

"We have the opportunity to send a strong message that it is no longer business as usual for Hawaiians," said trustee Dan Ahuna.

Trustee Peter Apo said rescinding without opposing would allow OHA to remain part of the discussion with the goal of eventual decommissioning of other telescopes already on the mountain.

It's not clear what effect OHA's position will have on the project. The office is a public agency tasked with improving the well-being of Native Hawaiians. The office would receive a percentage of rent paid for the sublease of the land the University of Hawaii leases from the state. The company building the telescope earlier agreed to extend a construction moratorium.

"We are naturally disappointed that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has changed its position on the Thirty Meter Telescope project. However, we are by no means discouraged," TMT International Observatory Board Chairman Henry Yang said in a statement. "We must now redouble our commitment to respectfully continuing dialogue and engagement with OHA and all other stakeholders."

Some opponents of the project in the crowded boardroom expressed disappointment that OHA didn't take a stronger stance.

PHOTO: University of Hawaii law professor Williamson Chang testifies against the Thirty Meter Telescope project during an Office of Hawaiian Affairs meeting in Honolulu on Thursday, April 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher)
University of Hawaii law professor Williamson Chang testifies against the Thirty Meter Telescope project during an Office of Hawaiian Affairs meeting in Honolulu on Thursday, April 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher)

Kuuipo Freitas, a master's degree student in Hawaiian language and literature at the University of Hawaii's Hilo campus, said she was one of the 31 protesters arrested for what she called protecting sacred land from desecration.

"Standing for the mauna, the biggest gain of all will be the support and trust of the Hawaiian people," she told the board before the vote. "That's what OHA has been striving for, for years."

The rent and money a telescope foundation has pledged for education is "soft money," she said. "OHA needs to stop bowing down to the dollar and starting bowing down to the mauna."

Sovereignty activist Bumpy Kanahele had urged trustees to take a stand. "We got to stop the TMT, period. Our national sovereignty is on the line."

Through tears, aspiring astronomer Mailani Neal told trustees that as a Native Hawaiian, the telescope will allow her to work in Hawaii one day. The Hawaii Preparatory Academy high school senior skipped school to travel from her home in Kailua-Kona with her parents to testify at the meeting.

While she spoke, some in the audience made negative comments that caught the ire of trustee Colette Machado. "Hilahila to the people in the back," she said, using the Hawaiian term for shame. If people couldn't be respectful, "get out," she scolded.

At one point during the meeting, when trustees took a recess to seek clarification on the vote, opponents and supporters seemed to put their differences aside by joining hands in a circle to sing "Hawaii Aloha."

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Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa.

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