The County Council’s selections marked the culmination of a weekslong power struggle over control of the board that will help shape the region’s future.

Lifelong East Maui residents who’ve championed water rights, kalo farmers, an environmental consultant and former Mayor Alan Arakawa are among the citizens who will shape the new East Maui Community Water Authority, with the first board of its kind in Hawaii.

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More than eight hours into a fiercely political meeting, the Maui County Council on Friday finally voted to choose who, out of roughly 20 applicants, will help steer the new board created after Maui, Molokai and Lanai voters last year established regional entities tasked with nurturing watersheds and taking over plantation-era water systems.

The six selected by the council will be among 11 members who will guide the all-volunteer board through terms that span from three to five years, with the rest chosen by the mayor and one recommended by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. The DHHL nominee is still pending after the agency withdrew its prior recommendations.

More than three dozen residents spent hours giving impassioned testimony on Friday about who they felt was best qualified for the new board. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

Of the council’s picks, four must represent the East Maui communities where the streams run. Council members selected: Moses Bergau Jr., a lifelong Nahiku resident, fisherman and kupuna caregiver; Janet Redo, a watercress farmer who’s lived in Keanae for 70 years; Norman “Bush” Martin Jr., a park caretaker, kalo farmer and member of the nonprofit Na Moku ʻAupuni ʻO Koʻolau Hui, which has long fought for water rights; and Lurlyn Scott, a kalo farmer whose family has also for decades battled for stream restoration in court and has an intimate knowledge of the watershed. 

“We’ve been waiting so long for this,” said council member Shane Sinenci of Hana, who spearheaded the proposal to create the community-run water authorities.

Officials crafted the board with a goal that people with both scientific and generational knowledge of East Maui’s delicate natural ecosystems would have a say in their care.

For the seat reserved for someone with expertise in water resources who also lives in a community that relies on the stream water, the council tapped Francis Quitazol, a Kula resident who has worked for more than 20 years in watershed management for Haleakala National Park, The Nature Conservancy and as a consultant. 

One of the most contentious discussions unfolded over the seat reserved for someone currently working in either ranching, farming, aquaculture or within loko i’a, Hawaiian fishponds. Brendan Balthazar, a longtime Upcountry cattle rancher, had been a favorite for the spot. But in a 5-4 decision, council members tapped Arakawa, who last year opposed the creation of the water authority, saying it would halt development and hurt the farming company Mahi Pono.

Arakawa’s supporters said the longtime politician would bring a wealth of knowledge from his years leading government, running wastewater systems and tending his family’s farm in Kula. Council members Yuki Lei Sugimura, Alice Lee, Tom Cook, Nohe Uʻu-Hodgins and Tasha Kama voted for him.

“He always has been always in the trenches of water and wastewater,” Kama told her colleagues, adding that he knows the “ins and outs” of the system of ditches, tunnels and reservoirs that tap East Maui streams.

Council members Tamara Paltin, Gabe Johnson and Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, however, all said the former mayor’s selection was a “hard no” — for reasons spanning from his past comments about Native Hawaiians to the track records of county officials who were once under his control. Sinenci also voted against him.

“The (director) he appointed to wastewater got indicted for corruption,” Paltin said, referencing former Environmental Management Department Director Stewart Stant, who was among two former county officials recently imprisoned in the largest public corruption scandal in recent Hawaii history. “So if that’s any example as to his record in water and wastewater, I don’t think he has any place on this board.”

Friday’s lengthy meeting was the culmination of a weekslong power struggle over control of the East Maui board — and, in turn, the water flowing from the streams that the new government entity is charged with reclaiming

Besides overseeing efforts to manage East Maui’s watersheds and grow water supply for future generations, the water authority is also tasked with figuring out the best way for the county to take over a century-old water system that for decades served Alexander & Baldwin’s sugar plantation. 

The private ditch system that once funneled stream water to dry cane fields is now managed by Mahi Pono, a farming company that purchased thousands of acres of A&B’s former sugarcane fields after the plantation shut down. Mahi Pono is backed by one of Canada’s largest pension funds, which has made recent national headlines for investing millions of dollars into buying water rights around the world amid climate uncertainty and worsening droughts.  

In the sales agreement that paved the way for A&B to sell its former sugar lands to Mahi Pono, A&B promised it would repay Mahi Pono up to $62 million if it didn’t succeed in helping the new company hold onto the leases for East Maui stream water, which are controlled by the state.

Mahi Pono planted fields of oranges on old sugarcane land along Haleakala Highway on Maui. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Sinenci, who spearheaded the proposal to give communities more say over their water, began recruiting for the East Maui regional board more than six months ago. But in recent weeks, he received pushback from colleagues to re-open the application process that originally spanned from December to April. 

Among the late applicants was Redo, who said she wasn’t aware of the application process until a relative told her, and Arakawa, who said he didn’t see the deadline in the news. Darren Strand, a former Mahi Pono and A&B employee, also applied late and was included in the slate of applicants proposed by Council Chair Alice Lee during Friday’s meeting but was not chosen. 

After spending hours listening to impassioned testimony from dozens of residents, council members late Friday spent several minutes debating how they should finally vote — either by approving one applicant at a time or voting on two different slates of candidates put forward by Sinenci or Lee. The council chair then called for a 15-minute break, which in turn shuts off the cameras that publicly livestream what’s happening in council chambers.

Roughly 50 minutes later, Lee reconvened the meeting and announced that consensus had been reached to vote on the applicants one by one.

“It could have been what they call ‘railroaded,’” Lee later told her colleagues. “But it wasn’t.”

But the process to pick the board isn’t quite over yet.

In early May, Mayor Richard Bissen sent a letter to council members saying that he was appointing East Maui residents Kyle Nakanelua, Moses Kahiamoe Jr. , Hugh Starr and Lester Wong to the four positions in his charge. At least one council member during Friday’s meeting, however, questioned whether the mayor might reconsider and nominate applicants who didn’t make it onto the council’s list.

And during a meeting that starts Monday, the Hawaiian Homes Commission is scheduled to discuss its representative for the East Maui regional board after the director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands walked back earlier recommendations twice in the last two weeks.

In March, then-interim DHHL Director Ikaika Anderson had tapped Jonathan Scheuer, a longtime consultant and water policy expert for DHHL who has worked on securing water for Hawaiian homelands and has co-authored the book, “Water and Power in West Maui.” 

Then shortly after the council reopened applications in June, DHHL Director Kali Watson rescinded Scheuer’s recommendation without public explanation. Instead, Watson tapped Dwight Burns, who works for a construction industry fund and has generational ties to East Maui and lifelong knowledge of the streams.

The sudden change, however, raised alarms among beneficiaries, who have argued that the selection process lacked public involvement from the start. In documents attached to the agenda for Monday’s meeting, the agency acknowledged that it “erred” in failing to seek the Hawaiian Homes Commission’s approval for either nominee so it’s starting anew next week.

Both DHHL and Maui officials were under pressure to get everything wrapped up by July 1, which is when the county’s new Independent Nomination Board takes effect. The nomination board was also created by Maui County voters last year and will be responsible for vetting and selecting nominees for dozens of boards and commissions — instead of the mayor and council having that sole authority.

View the different proposed slates of water authority board members from council members Lee and Sinenci.

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

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