The council extended its recruitment process last month after getting pushback from residents.

The saga over who should serve as Maui County’s top election official and administrator for the council could soon come to an end. 

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Council members are scheduled Friday to discuss — and likely decide — whom to hire permanently as the Maui County Clerk after initial attempts to appoint Moana Lutey, the county’s former top attorney, drew pushback from residents.

That spurred council members to extend the recruitment process. Lutey is currently serving in the role on a temporary basis.

The council will vet Lutey and 10 other applicants who applied to serve as the key public servant charged with conducting local elections, running County Council meetings, filing the necessary paperwork to create new county laws and handling a slew of other responsibilities for the $1 billion local government

According to county documents, the other applicants are: Charles Alevato, Mia ‘Aina, Ruby Chapman, Kerry Dawson, Casey Findtner, Courtney Friend, Tracy Gibbs, Anmarie Mabbutt, Mike Saiki and Peter Yoon.

Maui County residents were waiting in line to vote as the polls prepared to close at 7 p.m., Tuesday.
The new Maui County clerk will be charged with conducting local elections. Last year, there was criticism over long lines at the polls. (Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

“County clerks are the administrator who makes it possible for voters to vote,” said Donna Oba, the president of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii. “There are so many rules and so many laws and changes that have happened in the last few years; they have a big job ahead of them.”

Oba, whose organization works to help empower voters, said county clerks serve a critical role but have faced increasingly difficult jobs in recent years, especially as threats against election workers have mounted.

Hawaii also has expanded the ways that citizens can register to vote and cast their ballots, which has made it easier on voters but meant that county clerks have to quickly adapt to changing laws and heavier workloads. 

“We call them our election day heroes,” Oba said. 

County clerks have had to quickly adapt to changing laws and heavier workloads. (Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

On Maui, the discussions over filling the important role began late last year, when the council put out a hiring notice two days before Christmas.

That same day, however, a meeting agenda was published that showed council chair Alice Lee proposed hiring James Krueger, the former deputy clerk, for the role at an annual salary of $110,000. 

A few days later, that plan changed. Maui’s new mayor, Richard Bissen, announced he had someone new to serve as the administration’s top attorney — which meant Lutey, the county’s corporation counsel under the previous administration, wasn’t being rehired.

The Maui County Council chair then proposed hiring Lutey as county clerk with a salary of almost $157,000, roughly $45,000 more than her predecessor. The mayor’s salary stands at almost $160,000, according to the county’s salary commission.

The proposal to hire Lutey — and the short time to recruit her or anyone else for the spot — drew pushback from residents, spurring the council in early January to re-post the job opening to give other interested applicants more time to apply.

Lutey did not respond to emails seeking comment.

A photograph of the county building in Wailuku.
Council members, not the mayor, are tasked with hiring the county clerk. (Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Maui residents had raised concerns about Lutey’s handling of a number of the county’s legal issues, such as the battle over the county’s injection wells that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court when the administration refused to follow County Council direction to settle the lawsuit.

Some argued that was just one instance in which the legal department under her leadership had failed to serve taxpayers’ best interests. Others said the department’s decisions had paved the way for development that put Maui’s cultural resources at risk. 

“If you can’t help your own people, if you go against your own people, I don’t know how you can be trusted with such an important job,” cultural preservation advocate Clare Apana told council members last month. 

But several current and former county employees praised Lutey for her work defending the county, saying she always followed through on her responsibility to protect her client.

Supporters described her as an attorney and public servant who tackled Maui’s most challenging issues head on with a clear sense of integrity and grace and said she’s well placed to run elections in an era where officials have faced growing harassment and threats. 

“She leads by example and is well-respected by those who have worked with her,” Stephanie Chen, a deputy corporation counsel, told council members. “Ms. Lutey brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Office of the County Clerk, and it is appropriate for her compensation to reflect that.”

Whoever is chosen has a big job ahead. Last year, Maui County’s former clerk, Kathy Kaohu, had to deal with big challenges, ranging from some of the longest lines in the state during the primary election to questions over whether one of the Maui County Council candidates was a resident of the district he sought to represent. 

Butch Gima, a longtime resident of Lanai, filed a complaint in August alleging that Riki Hokama, who was running for the Lanai council seat, didn’t actually live there. But the November election came and went, and Gima said his complaint was never resolved. He learned recently that Lutey is now investigating it — five months later.

“You need to be responsive to the community,” Gima said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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